Frustration has become the name of the game over the past week at Easter Road, boss Pat Fenlon left scratching his head following a desperate performance in Dundee and, now, finding himself equally at a loss as to how to explain how Hibs succumbed to Aberdeen.
Coming to terms with defeat at Dens Park was reasonably simple, Fenlon’s players had fallen well below the standards they’d set themselves in the preceding weeks, a fact the manager recognised and one which he insisted would be rectified in time for the visit of Aberdeen.
The malaise which had afflicted his team eight days previously was certainly addressed in the intervening period, Hibs slowly but surely turning the screw on their opponents until it seemed it was only a matter of time before the Dons’ defence would crack.
Time after time goalkeeper Jamie Langfield was called into action, signalling his defiance by throwing himself full-length to touch away Eoin Doyle’s netbound shot before finding himself confronted by a one-man firing squad as Leigh Griffiths, seeking to score for a seventh match in succession, indulged himself in a game of “shooty-in.”
For once, though, the newly capped Scotland hitman found himself coming off second best, Langfield equal to everything he threw at him, four saves of note including one from Griffiths’ acrobatic overhead kick as he redeemed himself for failing to deal sufficiently well with a hanging Lewis Stevenson cross.
And, ultimately, Griffiths was overshadowed by Aberdeen’s very own scoring machine, Niall McGinn finding himself in the right place at the time after 77 minutes to take advantage as team-mate Johnny Hayes’ low cross broke off Hibs defender Alan Maybury to fall invitingly at his feet as he found a gaping hole in the home defence.
McGinn had the easy task of taking his tally to eight in his last nine SPL matches, his goal ending Hibs’ seven-match unbeaten home run – Aberdeen having brought the Capital club’s six-game run without defeat to an end at Pittodrie earlier in the season – and allowing the Dons to leapfrog their hosts into second place in the table, albeit by goal difference alone.
With 13 minutes remaining, Hibs’ bid to salvage even a point from a match which Fenlon insisted they fully deserved to win, understandably became a bit frantic, Jorge Claros and David Wotherspoon both shooting wildly off target while Tom Taiwo went a little closer before substitute Ross Caldwell had late, and faint, claims for a penalty waved away by referee Bobby Madden. It was left to Maybury, who had earlier brought off a superb covering tackle on Dons youngster Cammy Smith to avert a rare moment of danger for Fenlon’s side, to sum up the sense of disappointment which swirled around the ground, the fans’ frustration heightened by news of Celtic’s home defeat by Inverness Caley and the realisation that the opportunity to once again sit top of the pile had eluded them.
He said: “It wasn’t even a great cross but it just skidded up and I’m not even sure which bit of me it hit. We played well, I don’t think Ben Williams had a save to make and at the other end it just seemed to be chance after chance.
“Leigh was shooting from absolutely everywhere, on another day he would have had a handful. That’s the way it goes, there are times you get all the luck going like we did at Motherwell when we got two penalties we probably didn’t deserve.
“Then sometimes you get what happened here. It shows you there’s no point in getting too hung up about where you could have been. We’re still right in the pack despite the results elsewhere.”
Fenlon also pointed to the raft of unexpected results which this season has thrown up as reason to not dwell too much on what might have been, the Hibs manager focusing on the disappointment felt by all in green and white. He said: “From our point of view we have played really well and got nothing. We did not deserve to lose the game. It was a harder defeat to suffer than the one last week when we did not deserve anything.
“But this week we deserved to win the game.”
Aberdeen boss Craig Brown bristled at the suggestion his side had mounted a “smash-and-grab” raid to secure the points, highlighting the fact he’d been missing seven key players although Fenlon could point to the fact he, too, was missing influential figures, albeit in fewer numbers with skipper James McPake, Tim Clancy and Gary Deegan all out again.
However, while insisting the Dons deserved credit for a “battling performance,” before describing the contribution of Langfield and defenders Russell Anderson and Mark Reynolds as “magnificent,” Brown appeared to concede there was some credence to the belief Hibs had been a touch unlucky not to have taken something from the game.
Amid all the emotional stuff, though, this match perhaps provided the perfect moment to reflect on Hibs’ changing fortunes, marking as it did the first anniversary of Fenlon’s reign at Easter Road, one which, he admitted, has proved to be a rollercoaster of highs and lows, the desperate battle to shake off the threat of relegation and the mind-numbing Scottish Cup final demolition by Hearts, replaced by a renewed sense of optimism which shouldn’t be derailed by back-to-back defeats.
Despite the highly promising – and some would say equally unexpected – start Hibs have made, they remain very much a work in progress with the absence of McPake, Clancy and Deegan serving to underline the fact Fenlon’s squad remains somewhat thin, particularly in terms of defenders.
Progress has, though, been made, a fact recognised by Hibs fans returning to Easter Road, although admittedly slowly, with the second biggest crowd of the season at home containing more Hibs supporters than any previous game with numbers marginally up on the visit of Dundee United.
Chairman Rod Petrie has made it clear improved home gates will reflect the club’s ability to help Fenlon improve his squad come the January transfer window – retaining loan signings Griffiths, Ryan McGivern and Claros the manager’s priority – but, as yet, it would appear some, disillusioned by two seasons of abject failure, are proving harder to convince.
Fenlon said: “As a manager you want to see improvement on a regular basis. We’re happy to have improved but we are not sitting on that thinking ‘That’s great, we’ve now got to where we should be’. We want to kick on. We are not fooling ourselves, a fair bit of work still needs to be done and we are looking at all aspects of the football side of the club at the moment.
“There is a lot of work going on all the time so we can help improve the team and a club as a whole.”
The rate of progress, however, is dependent on persuading more disenchanted fans to return and to that end Fenlon would insist, and rightly so, that no-one should base their judgment of Hibs’ performance on the bald statistic of the result.