The warning signals were flashing long before Hibs’ team coach pulled up on the banks of the Moray Firth. Ever since the Edinburgh club made the long journey to the newly opened Caledonian Stadium seven years ago, they’ve found life tough in the Highlands.
A 3-0 defeat that day, April 2, 2005, was an omen of what was to come, Hibs repeatedly making the long trip up the A9 only to invariably return with little or nothing to show for their efforts. Tony Mowbray, John Collins and Mixu Paatelainen all tried and failed, a couple of draws amid a welter of defeats the best they could muster between them.
John Hughes was spared that particular ordeal, Inverness Caley spending a season in the First Division as his time as manager at Easter Road came and went before Colin Calderwood picked up a landmark victory thanks to Garry O’Connor’s late goal at the start of last season.
Pat Fenlon followed up that breakthrough with a victory at the first time of asking, Hibs scraping through 3-2 before normal service returned with Terry Butcher’s outfit winning the final match of the campaign.
Hibs’ record, whatever way you look at it, doesn’t make for pleasant reading, particularly when you consider that throughout that period Caley remained a side which found itself rooted in the bottom six of the SPL table each year although, of course, the Capital outfit haven’t been any great shakes themselves over the past couple of seasons.
Reason enough, then, for the latest foray north to be made with a degree of trepidation, even without taking into account the astonishing form Butcher’s side have found in recent months, now beaten just once in their last 15 matches, this victory seeing them leapfrog Hibs into second place to leave the Edinburgh outfit defeated for a ninth time in 13 games in the Highland capital.
Today Ivan Sproule, the only survivor from the sides which faced up to each other in the spring of 2005 – as Mowbray’s surprise £5000 signing from Northern Ireland minnows Institute he replaced Alen Orman as goals from Barry Wilson, Juanjo and Craig Brewster guided Caley to the first of many wins over Hibs – insisted there were no excuses he or his team-mates could make.
The winger said: “Their league position does not lie. They have good players, they are a team which works hard for each other and deserved the three points.
“It was a disappointing performance from us. We knew it was going to be tough and we feel we let ourselves down. We didn’t roll our sleeves up and battle as hard as we could, so we cannot have any complaints.”
That said, Sproule insisted there would be few teams arriving at the Caledonian Stadium brimming with optimism given the performances which saw Inverness complete a clean sweep of the Clydesdale Bank’s monthly awards, Butcher, Billy McKay and Aaron Doran take the manager, player and young player prizes respectively.
“Only the other week they went to Celtic Park and took three points from a team which has qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League and beaten Barcelona,” he said. “They are not a bad side, so give them the respect they deserve.”
As Sproule observed, Caley are “flying” at present but, having enjoyed their William Hill Scottish Cup triumph over Hearts only six days earlier, you’d have expected Fenlon’s players to have similarly buoyant.
Instead Hibs looked flat and other than a Josh Meekings’ slip which allowed Leigh Griffiths – having made a remarkable recovery from the ankle injury which had threatened his participation in this match only 48 hours earlier – his one and only effort on goal, his rising shot spectacularly turned over by Caley goalkeeper Antonio Reguero, they rarely looked dangerous.
Had Griffiths scored he’d only have been cancelling out Ross Draper’s opener, the midfielder allowed the space to guide a header from Graeme Shinnie’s free-kick beyond the helpless Ben Williams. In doing so Draper exposed a weakness in Hibs’ make-up which boss Fenlon admitted had been troubling him, the loss through injury of James McPake, Tim Clancy and Gary Deegan robbing his side of the height required to help counter such set-piece plays.
In fact, take away the 6ft 2in of Ryan McGivern and you’d struggle to find another player in Hibs’ starting XI for this one standing 6ft tall, whereas the Caley team were packed with “six-footers”, Draper, Meekings, David Raven, Owain Tudur Jones and Richie Foran to name but a few at Butcher’s disposal.
As such Hibs are susceptible, something Fenlon acknowledged at McDiarmid Park when, with his side hanging on to their 1-0 lead, he threw on Finnish veteran Shefki Kuqi (at 6ft 2in) as a late substitute and thereafter praised the striker’s defensive contribution.
Kuqi made another late appearance this time round, in his more familiar role up-front but, by then, Hibs were two goals down, Foran outmuscling Paul Hanlon as he came in at the back post to meet Doran’s cross, bundling the ball into the net rather untidily, but effectively.
Given Hibs’ lack of threat, the game looked over long before then although Butcher admitted feeling uneasy until that moment, confessing: “The second goal just wouldn’t come, although we looked as if we were going to score every time we attacked.”
A succession of offside flags helped Hibs repel Caley but, relieved by Foran’s goal, Butcher described McKay’s late header – the frontman making it five in four games – as “the icing on the cake”, particularly enjoying the fact three different players scored for a team which, with 34 goals, are the top scorers in the SPL.
For Hibs, though, goal-scoring opportunities have somewhat dried up in recent weeks, Fenlon’s side making the most of those which came their way to beat St Johnstone and Hearts both by a single strike, but unable to do so on this occasion.
However, conceding goals as they did in Inverness is also something of a concern as the Irishman admitted, Hibs having now lost three “on the road” four times this season, the total standing at 17 in nine away games which, alongside Ross County, is the worst in the league.
Fenlon was as candid as ever in his assessment. “It was a poor performance all-round, from start to finish,” he said. “We did not defend properly as a team which is something we hadn’t been doing lately. We didn’t show as much hunger and desire as Inverness.
“We have also got to look at why we are shipping so many goals away from home. However, we have had disappointing results away from home previously and bounced back well so that’s something we have got to do.”