Craig Samson’s heroics defy Hibs

St Mirren keeper Craig Samson
St Mirren keeper Craig Samson
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A LITTLE bit of something for everyone, but not enough to totally satisfy anyone.

That just about sums up this no-scoring draw, one which lifts Hibs a little further ahead of relegation rivals Dunfermline – but not by as much as boss Pat Fenlon would have hoped – and one which stretches St Mirren’s winless run to nine games as their hopes of a top six finish have begun to evaporate.

But as they reflected on the game today, Saints manager Danny Lennon would probably be the happier, even if six points now separate his side from sixth placed Dundee United with only four matches to go before the “split”.

Without a clutch of influential players through suspension and injury, Lennon was forced to reshuffle his side, adopting a formation to suit the personnel available and emerging with a creditable draw.

For Fenlon, though, it was most definitely the one that got away, the chance to collect his first SPL win at home, the opportunity for his side to complete back-to-back league victories for the first time in a year and, most importantly of all, to extend the gap between themselves and basement outfit Dunfermline to six points.

The consolation, of course, was that with the Pars losing again Hibs’ advantage has been increased albeit marginally, while he’d also be comforted by the fact his side created enough openings to win two or three games, only a five-star performance from Saints goalkeeper Craig Samson salvaging a point for the Paisley club.

Samson posted his intentions early, pulling off what Fenlon described as a “fantastic” point-blank stop from Easter Road captain James McPake’s bullet header, the Hibs manager reckoning that had the ball found it’s way into the net the complexion of the game would have changed somewhat.

And it is hard to argue with the Irishman’s opinion, falling behind would have been a severe test for the makeshift Saints, but, as it was, Samson was to prove up to anything thrown at him – denying Roy O’Donovan, Leigh Griffiths and David Wotherspoon – while a sea of red and black shirts, superbly marshalled by Hibs’ January target Jim Goodwin, ensured plenty more shots didn’t get anywhere near their goalkeeper.

Frustration was the name of the game as far as Hibs and their fans were concerned, the constant fear being that as the home side pushed for the breakthrough they could be caught on the break, particularly with the pace of Nigel Hasselbaink an ever-present threat.

However, Hibs’ defence was as resolute as that of their visitors, the only moments of worry being a terrific crossfield ball from David van Zanten that gave Aaron Mooy a glimpse of Graham Stack’s goal, only for the substitute to blaze wildly over and a Gary Teale free-kick which fizzed across the penalty area, missing the heads of a phalanx of team-mates by inches.

They were, though, rare and fleeting threats to Hibs as they upped the tempo after the interval, their passing more incisive and decisive as they got the home support involved, the fans anticipating a goal but ultimately left exasperated and frustrated at not seeing at least one.

Much of that was down to Samson, but even he was left scrambling when Honduran internationalist Jorge Claros strode forward to unleash a vicious low shot from 25 yards which zipped inches wide of the goalkeeper’s left hand post.

A goal would have capped off a tremendous display from the midfielder, one which would have done much to reassure the supporters that Hibs had, as Fenlon insisted, signed a player who will prove of great influence between now and the end of the season, that assertion having been questioned by some given the way in which the Edinburgh club had been over-run by Celtic a fortnight earlier.

There’s no getting away from the fact that 5-0 hammering hurt but one which, taking results since Fenlon’s influx of new signings took to the field, appears an isolated blip even allowing for the defeat which followed at Fir Park a few days later into account, the Hibs boss adamant the result that night in no way reflected his team’s performance.

Fenlon would be the first to acknowledge much remains to be done but over the course of the past few weeks he has overseen Hibs’ passage into the last eight of the William Hill Scottish Cup – that quarter-final against Ayr United at Somerset Park next up – and, hopefully, the beginning of a push away from the foot of the table.

To that end this draw would have disappointed Fenlon on another level, as had all three points been gathered they would not only have deepened Dunfermline’s woes but hauled Hibs to within two points of Inverness Caley ahead of their match against Dundee United tonight.

Fenlon has insisted all along that others could easily be drawn into the scrap at the bottom and, as such, he’ll regard the outcome of this game as disappointing.

The Hibs boss, however, is one to focus on the positives rather than negatives, saying: “I suppose we have made a bit of progress which is a plus, we are one more ahead but we’d have liked a couple more on top of that.

“I was pleased with our performance, we played quite well, created enough chances and defended very well so we are disappointed not to have got all three points.

“Their goalkeeper was fantastic, his save from James McPake was fantastic, if that one goes in the game changes a little. But I cannot fault the players, we worked very hard.”

Given Saints’ resilience, Fenlon surprised many by not pitching top scorer Garry O’Connor into the action until the last minute, the manager reasoning: “I thought our front two [Griffiths and O’Donovan] were exceptional. They gave St Mirren a lot of problems so I was reluctant to change it.”

As has been well documented, Hibs have managed just one SPL win at Easter Road in a year but despite failing to break that duck, Fenlon claimed to have detected a change in atmosphere at the ground. He said: “I think we are gradually getting rid of that fear of playing in our own ground.

“We have to give the supporters something to get up and I think we did that second half. They backed us really well and you could see a little bit of confidence coming back into the players.”