THERE is an unfamiliar atmosphere around Easter Road these days: one of expectation. For much of last season Hibernian supporters would turn up for games hardly even hoping for a good result, but instead dreading what they were about to witness. Not any more.
Already this season Hibs have won twice as many home games as they did during the previous campaign. They are the only team in the SPL unbeaten on their own patch, and while that record is unlikely to last until May, their improvement seems sure to be sustained.
The precise extent to which it does so, however, is dependent on one man: Leigh Griffiths. Pat Fenlon spoke last week about the need to tie down all three players whose current loans expire in January, but while defender Ryan McGivern and midfielder Jorge Claros have made their contribution to Hibs’ revival, it is the striker who has made the difference between mere solidity and something more successful.
Without Griffiths, Hibs would still be hard to beat, but they would also find it far harder to put opponents away. Even here, despite the best efforts of the 22-year-old, they were not entirely sure of the three points until the final whistle, betraying a degree of insecurity against a St Mirren team who were down to ten men for the last 25 minutes after Jim Goodwin was sent off for a second bookable offence.
But that insecurity was nothing compared to the bag of nerves Hibs invariably became last year when they were defending a lead. And St Mirren’s few direct attempts at equalising were negligible compared to the demonstration of the art of finishing given by Griffiths.
The top scorer in the SPL, Griffiths deserves to be named in the Scotland squad tomorrow. He has yet to show he can thrive at a higher level, but there is no reason not to offer him the chance in a virtually risk-free friendly.
Griffiths had the ball in the net three times on Saturday, as well as crashing it off the woodwork twice. But as well as being a natural goalscorer, he is a fine deliverer of a dead ball, and the most technically gifted player in Fenlon’s squad. In that sense, he is reminiscent of Derek Riordan. In the sense that he works hard throughout the game, he is not.
The striker’s first effort, a 20-yard shot from the left which glanced off the far post, came with 20 minutes played. St Mirren had begun more brightly, and by that time Steven Thompson had seen his shot saved by Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams following a one-two with Sam Parkin.
Kenny McLean was next to threaten, and Williams did well to save from the midfielder, who had been put through on goal by a clever ball from Thomas Reilly, making his first start for the Paisley side. St Mirren had been playing some neat football up to that point, while Hibs had been giving too much possession away, and those two aspects of the game combined to produce the opening goal just after the half-hour.
A corner from the right was not cleared properly, and when McLean gathered the loose ball he saw a path through the mass of bodies in the penalty area. His low shot found the bottom right-hand corner of the net, and St Mirren were ahead on merit.
Had they stayed ahead for any length of time it might have been a different kind of game, but instead Hibs levelled within five minutes. A cross by Paul Cairney from the left was knocked on by Eoin Doyle to Griffiths at the far post, and the striker scored with a low shot which slipped beneath the body of goalkeeper Craig Samson.
Hibs dominated the opening stages of the second-half, with captain James McPake heading over from a Griffiths corner, but St Mirren continued to pose a threat, and Claros had to head off the line to prevent Marc McAusland from reclaiming the lead. Yet despite that incident, there was a sense by that stage that Hibs would go ahead, and they did so 20 minutes in. David Wotherspoon made space by beating three men close to the right touchline then cutting out a fourth with a pass inside, and when the ball reached Griffiths he had the time to fire another low shot across Samson and into the far corner.
Added to that goal, the dismissal of Goodwin two minutes later for what appeared to be use of an elbow on Wotherspoon should have ended any uncertainty about the destination of the points. But Danny Lennon’s side continued to show enterprise, and Williams had to look lively to tip a McAusland header over the bar.
If a Griffiths free-kick had gone in instead of crashing back off a post that would have been game over, but St Mirren continued to press, with substitute Graham Carey being particularly troublesome to Hibs. The double goalscorer had the ball in the net again four minutes from time, but only seconds after play had been halted for an offside flag.
Hibs’ lead continued to look precarious, and in stoppage time Thompson could have snatched a point only to shoot straight at Williams. That shaky ending to the match was evidence that Fenlon’s team are far from the finished article. Nonetheless, the fact they held on to win, and thus return to the top of the table was in itself proof of how far they have come.