Sure, Leigh Griffiths’ equaliser early in the second half reflected a degree of pride, but their failure to build on it was more telling. All in all, they enjoyed just a fraction of the possession, created few chances and their first-half performance was embarrassing, as their fans recognised by booing them off the pitch. “That first half was the worst we have played in a long time,” said Lewis Stevenson.
“You feel for the folk that have been paying to watch us. It must be very hard for them to support us every week.”
To his credit, Brown decided against berating his players during the interval – “their confidence is low so it wasn’t a half-time for destroying people” – and introduced Griffiths as part of a double substitution, but the equaliser ought not to disguise the overall picture: Kilmarnock were better, by a distance.
Kenny Shiels, their manager, said that his team would have won had it not been for the goalkeeping mistake that led to Hibs’ equaliser. He also singled out the referee, Stephen Finnie, for criticism, claiming that one, maybe two, Hibernian players deserved to be sent off. David Stephens’ challenge on Danny Racchi upset him. “There was one person of the 23 starting participants whose ineptitude had a major, major influence on us not winning the game. Hibs weren’t dirty, but there were a lot of things happening there that weren’t punished.”
How Brown, the former Hearts assistant manager, would have loved to achieve at the first time of asking the win that had come all too rarely under Calderwood.
The sense of a new era was heightened by his decision to start with a formation that looked suspiciously like the one he was used to across the city. David Wotherspoon and Stevenson protected the back four, while Ivan Sproule, Isaiah Osbourne and Danny Galbraith supported their lone striker, Garry O’Connor, but the end product was no less turgid than it has been at Easter Road for the last 12 months.
Any hopes that the departure of Calderwood would somehow liberate the players he signed were extinguished by the end of a first half that tested the supporters’ patience. Not once did they test the Kilmarnock goalkeeper during that opening period, and when Wotherspoon’s free-kick headed for the back row of the away stand four minutes before half-time, a ripple of boos rang out around the stadium.
By that stage, Kilmarnock were ahead, and deservedly so. They hadn’t exactly peppered the goal themselves, but they slung the ball about well, and when a chance came their way, they took it. A cross was cleared only as far as Danny Buijs, whose low shot across the face of goal was too strong for Graham Stack to hold. When the ball was spilled, Manuel Pascali pounced on the rebound.
Kilmarnock also have in their favour the imagination of Dean Shiels. Roaming in the role behind Paul Heffernan, he gives the Ayrshire side an unpredictable dimension. When he collected a throw-in on the byeline, it would have been standard procedure to look up and lay the ball back, but instead, he turned between Sproule and Wotherspoon to fire in a low shot.
With his application for the job looking less convincing by the minute, Brown could not be seen to be letting this continue, and promptly made his double substitution. Michael Hart made way for Richie Towell, and more significantly, Danny Galbraith for Griffiths, the striker on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Griffiths has been struggling with a stomach bug, but there was no sign of it in the opening minutes of the second half when his impact was almost immediate. O’Connor released Sproule with a sliding ball behind the full-back, and although the winger looked as though he had carried the ball over the goal-line, he was quick enough to hook it across the six-yard box. Jaakola dived low to intercept, but failed to hold the ball, which Griffiths quickly stabbed in off the woodwork.
Suddenly, Hibs had the lift they desperately needed. Griffiths, in fact, might have had his second four minutes later when a quick throw-in allowed him to nip clear of the last man. From a difficult angle, he poked the ball into the sidenet, with Towell screaming for a square pass across the penalty area.
But that, in truth, was that for Hibs, who soon returned to their former selves as Kilmarnock kept the ball and patiently waited for an opening. Buijs was behind most of their best chances. His cross set up James Dayton, but the substitute’s glancing header was saved. Then he threaded a cute pass to Shiels, who delayed long enough to attract a marker, but still beat his opponent and smacked a shot off the goalkeeper’s hands. The Kilmarnock forward deserved a goal for he was clever and ambitious throughout, not least with a late chip from 25 yards that landed on the roof of the net. With two minutes left, Buijs again picked a hole in Hibs’ defence with a perfect pass to Dayton whose volley was straight at the goalkeeper.