LIFE after Leigh Griffiths took a turn for the better at McDiarmid Park on Saturday when a goal in each half – by Paul Heffernan and James Collins – gave Hibernian all three points, as well as a partnership with the potential to flourish in the weeks ahead.
Heffernan 35′ Collins 59′
Without Griffiths – the striker who scored, indeed made, so many of their goals last season – there were fears that, in the current campaign, Hibs would be left only with the wearisome football so skilfully disguised by the man now at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
A deserved win against St Johnstone suggested otherwise. Not only are Heffernan and Collins hoping, between them, to make a dent in the 28-goal total racked up by Griffiths last season, there are signs that the team will play better as a unit in the absence of so prominent an individual.
Collins, more than Heffernan, badly needed his goal. After five matches without scoring, the 22-year-old admitted that it had been preying on his mind. He had been anxious to start
repaying the £200,000 transfer fee that brought him from Swindon Town in the summer.
He was not the only one who felt relieved. Kevin Thomson, the Hibs midfielder, admitted that following Griffiths was a thankless task for the club’s new strikers. Prior to Saturday, the Edinburgh side had scored just three times all season, leading many to pine for the departed one.
“It’s hard to get away from that,” said Thomson. “Leigh’s obviously so talented. He scored a lot of goals and had a fantastic season so every striker that comes in is going to be labelled with trying to follow up on what he achieved. You’re almost on a hiding to nothing because, sometimes, Old Firm strikers don’t score 25 goals every season. There’s big pressure.”
As Pat Fenlon, the Hibs manager, admitted later, Collins had not enjoyed the best of games but he worked hard for the break that gave him the game’s winning goal. His shot, after a clever pass by Liam Craig, was parried by Alan Mannus, St Johnstone’s goalkeeper, but the ball trickled over the line.
Heffernan had a bigger impact. After Stevie May had given St Johnstone an early lead with his piercing shot into the bottom corner, the Hibs striker equalised by converting from eight yards when Scott Robertson’s effort struck a post. Then, when Hibs took control of the second half, he was instrumental in their advances.
The experienced former Kilmarnock player is an expert finisher but, according to Thomson, he is also a striker who brings out the best in his team’s midfield. “The last thing I want to be doing is banging balls over the top,” said Thomson. “The way I play, I want to pass into people’s feet. So I’ve already marked Heff’s card. I told Collo when he first came in as well. But Heff has definitely given us a new dimension. The two worked tirelessly together and thankfully they got the goals.”
Fenlon said that Hibs produced their best football of the season during a second half that was full of positives. Quite apart from the winning goal, Liam Craig played well against his former club, especially when he occupied a more advanced position.
There was a return for James McPake – back as a late substitute after seven weeks out – and a brief taste of what to expect from Abdellah Zoubir, the loan signing from Istres. The winger was full of confidence and ideas when he made his debut near the end.
Of course, we have heard all this before from Hibs under Fenlon, whose steps forward are too often followed by more in the other direction, but there are indications, after four unbeaten league matches, that they have put behind them that horrific start to the campaign, when the manager’s job was under threat.
St Johnstone, who finished third last season, had not lost at McDiarmid Park since November 2012, when Hibs were also the opponents. Saturday’s result led Thomson to suggest that his team should now be aiming to join the Perth side, and indeed the rest of Scotland’s also-rans, in the race to be best of the rest.
“We need to be pushing top six minimum,” said Thomson. “If we don’t finish top six, I would class it as a failure. I think we’ve got the squad to finish in the top six.
“I think St Johnstone will be in the top six again as well. So if we can come away and compete with teams like this, we need to be aiming higher. I think we’ve all got to be striving to try to fight for that second spot.”
Referee: R Madden