There was a curious swirl of emotions in the Hibernian camp on the back of what was a season high at Perth on Saturday. Sentiments that belied the easy explanation the 4-1 thumping of St Johnstone could simply be attributed to the Leith side parting with the luckless Paul Heckingbottom days earlier.
You could only feel for the English coach that the first game after he was canned by Hibs following nine months at the helm, everything came good for them. And the fact this is precisely how the players themselves felt – who certainly cut upbeat figures but also displayed a curious sheepishness at the turnaround – demonstrated Heckingbottom hadn’t lost the Hibs’ dressing room even as he found it impossible to win Premiership games.
It isn’t often you will hear a player expressing “guilt” over his team’s first 90-minute victory for three months but that is the word that Ryan Porteous used to reflect on the fact that a first league success since the opening day of the season had only arrived once it was too late to save the job of a head coach who seemed bedevilled in his search for such an outcome. Porteous’s frankness came on the back of similar from Christian Doidge. The big Welshman must be the first player in history to consider that a first professional hat-trick to end a three month wait for a league goal made him feel “terrible”. His reaction was admirable recognition that his misfiring in front of goal following his £350,000 summer move from Forest Green Rovers had effectively made him the biggest stick with which to beat Heckingbottom over his close-season recruitment.
According to central defender Porteous what panned out at McDiarmid Park – which followed five straight Premiership draws for the team, he was keen to point out – wasn’t because Heckingbottom was no longer in charge but a culmination of his efforts when in post. That wasn’t to downplay the impetus provided by caretaker Eddie May, who dropped the 4-2-3-1 formation previously favoured to play Doidge alongside a partner in Florian Kamberi, and allowed Scott Allan to play as a proper No 10 at the apex of a diamond. It was just the case that the Scotland under-21 international wanted to shift blame for Hibs’ travails this season from the shoulders of the now-deposed manager, who, he revealed had urged his team to win at Perth as he said his goodbyes last Monday.
“We definitely felt guilt,” said the 20-year-old. “The manager is there to take the hit if his team is not performing but we could have done a lot better for him. We are disappointed to see him go. But it was his hard work as well that worked against St Johnstone. It was about shutting up shop and getting that second and third goal to get over the line. Paul actually said to us before he left that he knew we were going to win today. He said, ‘you will go up there and win because you are good players. Try and forget about me and just go and play’. We did what he’s been teaching us.
“He’s not the type of guy to be angry that we’ve won now he has left. It’s his hard work that’s got us here. He will be disappointed the performance has come now. It’s a shame, it’s poor timing. But he won’t turn on his telly and be angry at this group of players.
“He could have been angry but he came in and wished us all the best and said if we ever needed him he’s only a phone call away. But we need to move on from that and this was a great stepping stone for us.”
A step towards the top six, with the Easter Road club now only two points and two places shy of that ranking, with a game in hand over Livingston and Ross County above them. There was no great Heckingbottom- focused reason for why everything clicked for Hibs, Porteous maintained. “Maybe Doidgy’s not been getting the service he deserves,” the youngster said. “He’s a poacher and he will score goals. And that was the best I’ve seen Kamberi in a long time. There’s still a bit to go but we really feel we can climb the table – and fast.” Just not fast enough for Heckingbottom’s CV, alas.