PAUL HANLON hailed Hibs’ battling victory over Inverness as their best of the season – but admitted that his side have not made the fight against relegation an easy one for themselves.
The defender’s diving header opened Hibs’ account at the Caledonian Stadium to send them on their way to a vital 3-2 victory in the Highlands but they were made to work for the points by Terry Butcher’s side.
Hanlon conceded the penalty that led to Greg Tansey’s opener but just five minutes later brought his side level and hitman Garry O’Connor then put Hibs in front with just quarter of an hour remaining.
As they have done on so many occasions this season, the Edinburgh club almost shot themselves in the foot, allowing Caley back into the game through a Jonny Hayes effort that seemed to be caught on a gust of wind before dipping and ending up in the back of the net, only for Leigh Griffiths to perform a classic smash-and-grab raid with his strike four minutes from time. The problems which have plagued Hibs for much of this season were still in evidence in Inverness, with those in green-and-white shirts slow to find their rhythm and defending slack on occasion, but the difference was that this time they refused to succumb.
In the second-half, they showed a fighting spirit that they will need in abundance for the remaining weeks of the season if they are to be successful in their bid to beat the drop.
The win over Caley, combined with Dunfermline’s defeat to Dundee United, means Hibs now have a six-point cushion over the Pars and Hanlon conceded that there was a sense of relief at the final whistle and said: “I think given the position we are in, this is the best win of our season.
“We came up here at the start of the season and stole it in the last minute and thought that was a great result then, but at this time of the season, with the pressure we are under, it’s a great win.
“We never seem to make it easy for ourselves, do we? To go 1-0 down here is never easy so credit to the lads for coming back to get the victory.
“When Jonny Hayes’ goal went in we could have let our heads go down. When you are at the bottom of the league those things go against you but Leigh’s strike to win us the game was a quality one. He just never gives up, he wants to score goals and he did that today so we’re all delighted.
“And, personally, it was good to score because it made up for the penalty I conceded.”
It had looked ominous in the opening stages – indeed the entire first-half had done little to inspire confidence – with Inverness enjoying the bulk of the pressure.
Hibs manager Pat Fenlon had been looking for improvement from his side after the disappointment of defeat to Dundee United last weekend but the Easter Road side again started the match on the back foot and he admitted after the match that it is a problem his side must rectify sooner rather than later.
He would have been an unhappy man as Caley almost bagged an early opener, Hayes’ ball in from the right finding its way beyond a static Hibs backline, right across the box to the far side where Graeme Shinnie had plenty of time to switch feet before firing in a shot that Graham Stack managed to touch away.
The home side carved out another chance a couple of minutes later, this time a brilliant ball on the diagonal from Greg Tansey finding Hayes out wide right again and the Caley player took a touch before thundering in an effort that Stack did well to get his hands to.
Those two efforts aside, Caley enjoyed the best of the opening exchanges, with Tansey and Hayes both causing problems in the middle of the park, and particularly down the right.
Richie Foran – a player Fenlon admitted he was a huge fan of – almost handed Hibs the opener with 20 minutes gone when, under no real pressure, he was short with a ball back to Jonny Tuffey.
The Caley keeper was left scrambling as Griffiths closed in and only managed to clear it as far as Garry O’Connor but by the time the Hibs striker collected, some of the home defenders had managed to race back in support and the chance was crowded out. They had the opportunity to heap the pressure back on Caley again before the half-hour was out after Kenny Gillet had fouled Isaiah Osbourne on the edge of the box. Richie Towell and Pa Kujabi both stood over the ball, the latter finally swinging it in with his left foot, only for it to be met by the head of Tansey and cleared away before it could cause any danger.
Caley’s pressure resumed, though, when Hayes again spotted an opportunity, this time releasing Billy McKay who raced clear and drilled a shot past Stack only to be denied when it cracked off the foot of the post.
Just before the break, Hibs looked to have a chance when Osbourne laid a long ball on for O’Connor to chase but the big hitman was edged out by Foran, the Irishman shepherding the ball out.
The second-half started much in the same manner as the first had ended and there were danger signs when Hayes and Gregory Tade linked up on the right, the former taking the return pass and swinging the ball deep into the box.
It was headed behind for a corner by McPake, but that only delayed the opening goal by the matter of a few seconds as Tansey’s resultant corner was headed on in the box and, as McKay rose to try to meet it, he was judged to have been brought down by Hanlon.
Tansey took the spot-kick and, from 12 yards, lashed the ball high into the net.
Just seconds later, Tade had a chance to double his side’s advantage, racing clear and seeming certain to hit the back of the net, only for Stack to prove more than equal to him, making himself big and blocking the shot with his legs. However, Hanlon had soon erased the memory of the penalty, levelling the match within the matter of just a couple of minutes, diving to head Griffiths’ corner into the back of the net from the edge of the box.
Hibs got themselves in front and, in truth, it was a goal created from absolutely nothing.
Matt Doherty, more accustomed to mopping up at the back, latched on to a ball from Tom Soares and raced down the right all the way to the bye-line, before cutting the ball across the face of goal where O’Connor was waiting and he was left with the fairly simple task of slotting into the net at pace, beyond the helpless Tuffey.
Caley levelled the match with a goal that left Hibs keeper Stack stunned. He’d had a great game but was left stranded as Hayes’ ball in from the left seemed to get caught up in the swirling wind and ended up in the back of the net, to the astonishment of everyone in the ground.
The biggest stunner was still to come though, as Isaiah Osbourne picked out Griffiths with a long-range pass and the former Livingston man left both Josh Meekings and Ross Rokely in his wake before coolly slotting home.
Inverness manager Terry Butcher was incandescent with rage at the final whistle and slated his players for allowing Hibs to head back down the A9 with all three points in the bag.
Despite dubbing his defence “the back four from Hell” though, Butcher insisted that he should take the blame because he picked the team.
He fumed: “That sums up our season. Our season was encapsulated in those 90 minutes. Everything about us this season was there; sometimes very good, sometimes absolute rubbish. We’ve conceded another three goals at home and we lost a game we dominated. We made so many chances it was unbelievable and we haven’t won the game.
“It was an absolute disgrace; an embarrassment. I can’t find words to describe how disappointed and upset I am. Hibs had three chances and scored from them all. What does that say? Back four from hell.
“It is totally abhorrent to my way of thinking and playing, but I’m the one who takes the blame. It’s my fault.”