TERRY BUTCHER pieced together a team of youngsters, new signings, some of the seasoned old guard and a couple of players he had brought back from the wilderness to get a first win in six but then joked that he thought an imposter had taken to the field to help them get the goal that set them on their way.
Scorers: Hibernian - Stanton 9; Taiwo 24; Ross County - Brittain 58
Recent on-field performances have been one thing but Butcher said it was poor showings in training ground target practice that had him rubbing his eyes as Sam Stanton gave Hibs the lead after just nine minutes.
“He surprised everybody. We didn’t celebrate at first, we were all too shocked. The boys have been doing free kicks [in training] and they have been absolutely pants. In fact, the goalkeeper almost went for a cup of tea because there were no shots on target when they practiced last Friday, before the Raith Rovers game. So when he scored from it, we were just: ‘Wow!’. We wondered if a stranger had come on the pitch and taken it!”
Not that Butcher cared who it was who had given Hibs the advantage and helped settled the frayed nerves of the punters in the stands.
The Hibs management and players insisted they had put their Scottish Cup upset to bed early in the week but, for the home fans, the hangover lingered on. In their minds, at least, there was the need for some redemption.
Add another loss to the run of five games without a win and Hibs would have edged closer to the frelegation play-off spot, but triumph took them to the brink of their only remaining aim – seeing out the Premiership campaign as high up the top six as possible.
In the wake of last Saturday’s cup shock, manager Butcher had suggested there might be several changes to the starting line-up. On merit alone, the only two who had done enough to justify inclusion were Sam Stanton and Duncan Watmore and, with both in the side, there would always have been the scope to carve out openings. But the bad news for the capital side was that the winger, on loan from Sunderland, failed to recover from a bruised foot.
It was a blow to Hibs but against a poor Ross County side, and with the boost of an early opening goal, they had done enough to earn the win by the time the half-time whistle had sounded. Highlanders’ manager Derek Adams, though, claimed his men had gifted Hibs two soft goals but had come back at them in the second half and produced enough over the 90 minutes to justify something more from the match.
Butcher rubbished that suggestion. “I don’t agree with that at all. We were by far the better team. It wasn’t a tale of two halves. I thought we had opportunities in the second half to kill the game off but we just didn’t take them and that led to a frantic finish to the match.”
It was the more reasonable assessment and Hibs did make it more difficult for themselves than it should have been.
The first goal, Stanton’s second in two weeks, came in the ninth minute and was an unstoppable free-kick. The midfielder had earned the opportunity at goal when he was felled by Rocco Quinn about 25 yards out and he was worthy of the plaudits that came his way when he converted it with a clinical and ferocious strike that was too well placed for the diving Mark Brown.
“It shows the confidence he has and the ability he has and a sweet, sweet left foot,” said his gaffer. “He has a bright future ahead of him.”
Hibs added a second in the 24th minute when Tom Taiwo, one of those Butcher admitted he has brought back into his plans after some impressive displays in games and in training, calmly slotted away a right-foot shot from the centre of the box.
“This team is newcomers, the old brigade, people coming in from the wilderness and that was Tom [Taiwo]. He has and he has been tremendous and scored the winning goal. It is very encouraging. He has been brilliant, he really has. “
At that stage Ross County were offering little resistance.
Pretty ordinary in attack, whenever they did venture close to Ben Williams’ area they were vulnerable to Hibs’ counter-attack. They did have one Yoann Arquin effort come off the bar in the first half and
Graham Carey had chances either side of the interval but Hibs also had two good stabs at extending their lead before County pulled one back.
First Jordan Forster’s header was parried onto the post and as it dropped on the line, Danny Haynes tried but failed to force it over.
Danny Handling was through moments later but should have squared to Haynes instead of trying to take it on himself.
That allowed Ross County to make things more jittery than it needed to be, when Richard Brittain’s 58th-minute freekick beat Ben Williams but Hibs held on.
Teams, goals, bookings
Hibernian: Williams, Forster, McGivern, Taiwo, Nelson, Hanlon, Handling (Boateng, 87), Harris (Cairney, 78), Stevenson, Stanton, Haynes (Collins, 82).
Subs not used: Grant, Maybury, Heffernan, Cummings.
Goals: S Stanton 10; T Taiwo 24.
Ross County: Brown, Cikos, Ikonomou (Gordon, 78), Quinn (Cooper, 45), McLean, Songo’o, Brittain, Tidser, Slew (Luckassen, 74), Arquin, Carey.
Subs not used: McCarthy, Kettlewell, Boyd, Glen.
Goals: R Brittain 59.
Booked: R Quinn
Referee: B Madden