TERRY Butcher is convinced his Hibernian team will escape the threat of relegation provided they continue to show the improvement he saw yesterday.
Hibs lost 2-1 to Hearts – their fourth defeat of the season in the Edinburgh derby – and are just a point ahead of 11th-placed Kilmarnock. But their manager thinks the determination they showed will help steer them to safety, and he received the backing of Hearts counterpart Gary Locke.
“If we take that quality of performance and that fight and determination into the next three matches then we’ll be fine,” said Butcher, whose team have now lost their last six matches.
“That’s the best we’ve played for a long, long time. I can’t remember the last time we played as well as that.”
Hibs’ improvement has come from a low base, and they again showed their old failings yesterday as defensive lapses allowed Callum Paterson to score twice from headers in the last ten minutes of the first half. Jordon Forster got one goal back with a header 20 minutes from time, which ensured Hibs did not lose 2-0 for a fifth game in succession, and although the equaliser did not come, Butcher was at least encouraged by the tenacity his players showed in looking for it.
“I felt we didn’t deserve to lose the game, but we have shot ourselves in the foot really,” he said. “We’ve lost the game ourselves with two poor pieces of marking. Paterson’s got two free headers and it’s 2-0 and all that good work and everything else is undone by that. But the reaction from the players was good. We got a goal back, which was good, but we couldn’t get that second goal, the equaliser. But I thought the boys played really well.
“Full credit to Hearts, they had two opportunities and took them, probably against the run of play. I don’t know when was the last time we were 2-0 up and had something to defend. It would be a nice position to be in. But we have opportunities in the next three games to have just that.
“When you’re in this position – and I’ve been in this position as a player and a manager – you need to grab on to things that are positive. And I think there were lots of things today that were positive.
“I’m confident. If you can play like they did today, under that pressure in a derby match – knocked it about well, tested Hearts all the way, the players took responsibility on the ball, showed a lot of bottle, and a lot of fight – I think we will come through these next three matches very well.”
Midfielder Kevin Thomson, out of favour until recently, was singled out for praise by Butcher. But the manager was pleased by the effort put in by his whole team, especially the greater character they showed compared to some recent matches.
“He was outstanding today,” Butcher said of Thomson. “There are three games left, so to have a player like that who gets on the ball and passes it like he did today was terrific, really, really good, good to see him back to his best and the way he can play.
“When we scored a goal it was like ‘We don’t know what the feeling is to score a goal’, but it was nice and it lifted the whole crowd. We were buoyed by that.
“We looked as though we could carve a team open. We need to take that into the next three matches. The shape of the team was good, there was good scrap and fight about them and they showed good quality under pressure.
“When you’re 2-0 down at home in a derby you have to show some bottle. The last thing you want to do is cave in, which we certainly didn’t. I thought we showed a lot of fight and we should have come away with something from the game.”
Locke said last week that he expected Hibs to stay up, and saw nothing to change his mind yesterday. “Hibs have good players and that was the least you expect,” he said.
“They gave Terry everything today and I fully expect them to stay up. They put us under a lot of pressure and made it very difficult. If they play with that spirit and commitment in the next couple of games they will win them.”
With four wins and a draw from their last five games, Hearts are the form side in the bottom six at the moment, and would now be 11th but for their 15-point penalty. Staying within 15 points of at least one other team is the manager’s target for the remaining weeks of the season.