Had they managed to take maximum advantage of their vastly improved second-half performance on Saturday, Hibs would have sneaked into the top six, for a few days at least.
Kilmarnock 1-1 Hibernian
St Johnstone’s defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle offered them the opportunity to move into the top half of the league for the first time this season, but in the end Easter Road manager Terry Butcher had to try to be satisfied with a point, “try” being the operative word.
The manager later admitted he wasn’t particularly elated with the draw given that his team looked far more dangerous after the interval. Such an improvement meant Butcher expected his side to go on and secure all three points after Danny Haynes had cancelled out an opener for Kilmarnock by Rory McKenzie. In order to establish whether or not he was alone in feeling this way, the Hibs manager decided to put it to his players in the dressing room at Rugby Park afterwards, as he has learned that sometimes the players see things differently to him. Perhaps it is a generational thing.
“I said to the players afterwards, what do you think?” revealed Butcher. “I like to hear what they say. Sometimes I don’t necessarily agree with what they say, but I like to hear their views. And they told me, it’s two points dropped.”
Having received such support for his take on the 90 minutes, Butcher felt warranted in describing himself as “disappointed” with the afternoon. What is not in dispute is that the point Hibs did secure will prove to have been a very good one if they can follow it with a win at home against Dundee United on Friday. If they cannot, then it will have been robbed of much of its value.
Judging by the first-half performance, Hibs’ prospects of taking anything at all from the game looked bleak. But the Easter Road side improved immeasurably after half-time and they were certainly worthy of the point gained on a heavy pitch. Even when they went behind in the first half, their manager felt the goal had come against the run of play, although, in truth, Hibs were scrappy in the extreme from the start until half-time.
Skipper Michael Nelson did wonder whether losing the opening goal in such circumstances might have provoked a different reaction in the side from earlier in the season. Coming back after conceding the first goal was not one of their fortés under Pat Fenlon, Butcher’s predecessor. “Maybe it’s a point we wouldn’t have got a few months ago,” Nelson conceded. “Maybe after they scored we would have gone into our shells and wilted a little bit. We didn’t do that and if anything we got stronger. We didn’t panic or get flustered. We were just not clinical enough in the final third.”
The 19-year-old midfielders Sam Stanton and Craig Slater both shone, living up to their burgeoning reputations in the heart of their respective teams’ midfields. Indeed, Stanton was the architect of Hibs’ equaliser after 57 minutes with a fine cross from the right to the front post. Haynes twisted to head home a fine striker’s goal, and his first for the club.
Alexei Eremenko was endlessly entertaining but not perhaps in the way the Kilmarnock fans might have wanted. Although clearly talented, mostly he was a grumpy figure railing against the dying of a light. When he is good he is very good, but here he expended energy he can ill-afford to fritter away criticising team-mates for misplaced passes. It cannot help team spirit and he was withdrawn midway through the second half with the home fans’ patience having begun to run out.
Kris Boyd is a more positive presence. He put his shoulder to the wheel from the start and though not much more mobile than Eremenko, he supported his team-mates and offered encouragement. He also showed them the way with a pass that lit up the afternoon and led to Kilmarnock’s goal.
Remarkably, the assist came from the home side’s own half. Boyd turned to slip a ball through for McKenzie that must have travelled more than 50 yards. It was measured to perfection. His fellow striker barely had to break stride as he galloped through on goal. McKenzie took a touch, steadied himself and then directed an effort past Ben Williams. Asked whether this was likely to prove the best pass he has received all season, the young striker replied: “Possibly, Eremenko might challenge him later in the season.”
The idea of Boyd as a creator of goals might not once have been entertained, but he is relishing being handed more responsibility at Kilmarnock. The striker was back where we are more used to seeing him just before the hour mark as he tumbled in the box after a strong challenge from behind by Nelson. Such is referee Craig Thomson’s history with Hibs, the defender later said “it wouldn’t have surprised me” if the penalty had been given, possibly even for handball, despite the ball having hit his face.
“Boydy is clever,” he added. “He waits for you to come and rather than you go into him he’ll step backwards to make the contact. I have jumped above him and the ball has hit me in the face. He turned and asked me if it was a penalty and I said I didn’t think so.” From where McKenzie was standing, he thought it was a “stone-waller”. While Butcher and his players agreed they felt bereft at leaving Rugby Park without all three points, Kilmarnock, too, nursed a grievance.
Kilmarnock - McKenzie (19)
Hibernian - Haynes (56)
Referee: C Thomson