THERE was one obvious consolation for Hibernian at the weekend after the latest in a lengthening line of lame defeats. Every other club in the bottom six also lost, meaning that Terry Butcher’s team are still seven points above the play-off place, with seven games to play.
That remains a sizeable buffer between Hibs and second-bottom Ross County, and bookmakers expect the Easter Road club to retain their place in the Premiership with something to spare. But there are several factors which, at the very least, could cause a great deal of anxiety for Hibs over what is left of the season.
For a start, of course, there is the fact that after the split they will not benefit from the kind of good fortune they have just enjoyed. As the bottom six now play against each other, at least three of them gain points in every round of fixtures. If Hibs keep losing, they could find Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, Ross County and St Mirren all edging towards them.
Thistle, Ross County and St Mirren all have a game in hand on the other two, to be played over the next two nights. You would not expect the home team to get anything when Celtic visit Firhill tomorrow evening, but it is perfectly conceivable that Ross County get a point against Aberdeen and St Mirren do likewise against St Johnstone.
What is more, the four teams above Hibs all play again on Saturday, a day before the Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. They are all away to teams in the upper half of the table, and it is hard to see any of them winning. Yet stranger things have happened, and on paper Hibs could be down to ninth before they next kick a ball.
What is more, the notion that with a current tally of 34 points Hibs are already safe is not borne out by all the facts. Last season, for example, St Mirren finished on 42 points, yet were still second bottom. Had the play-offs been in place then, they would have been in them.
In fact, in only one of the past five seasons has a club been safe with 34 points. That was St Mirren again, in 2009-10, when they finished a point above Kilmarnock, and three ahead of relegated Falkirk. The season before that, Inverness Caledonian Thistle were relegated with 37 points. Granted, Hibs are still masters of their own fate, and a couple more wins should be enough to banish their fears. Their goal difference is the best in the bottom six, so as things stand is as good as an extra point to them.
But it is difficult, after Saturday’s loss at St Johnstone and the one a week earlier at Thistle, to see where those wins are coming from. Since winning three consecutive matches around the turn of the year, their league record is played 11, won one, drawn four. Their morale is low, and there is almost universal agreement that Butcher will need to make sweeping changes come the summer.
That itself is part of the problem. No matter how restrained the manager is in his public criticism of the squad, no matter how upbeat he may try to be with them in private, the players know that many of them will soon be surplus to requirements.
They should be professional enough to keep training and playing to the best of their ability, for the sake of their own futures if not for their current employer. But in such circumstances it is only human to become somewhat demotivated – and that, added to the collective demoralisation that has set in, makes for a vicious cycle of decline.
There has been a drop in form throughout the team, with Butcher giving pass marks after recent games to just a couple of his players, but the key problem is the failure of the strike force. James Collins has never looked good enough at this level since being signed by Pat Fenlon; Paul Heffernan, who had a bright spell in the autumn, has not been as sharp since returning from injury; and Jason Cummings, a star in the under-20s, has yet to get up to speed at senior level.
As a result of that lack of bite up front, Hibs often look beaten once they go behind. Especially in those matches where they have dominated possession for a spell without scoring, such as the 3-1 defeat by Thistle, their deflation has been visible the minute they conceded.
There is one other element in the run-in where Hibs could be at a disadvantage: the fact they have two Edinburgh derbies to play. The remaining quartet in the bottom six will all expect to beat Hearts, and whether they meet the Tynecastle side at home or away they will play in a confident, self-assertive manner. On Sunday, even though they could have the chance to finally relegate their city rivals, Hibs are unlikely to begin the game with anything approximating to those qualities.