Hibernian 2 - 3 St Johnstone: Fragile Hibs crash back into trouble

ANY joy, when it comes at Easter Road, is short-lived. After two wins in succession away from home, to ensure safe passage in the Scottish Cup and then give themselves some breathing space in the quest to avoid relegation, the doom clouds returned yesterday.

While Dunfermline were defeating Kilmarnock at Rugby Park, Pat Fenlon’s men were struggling to overcome St Johnstone in Leith. They are the only team that Hibs have beaten at home on SPL business in almost a year and twice Hibs battled back from a goal down, but on both occasions poor defending saw them undo all their good work within a matter of minutes, permitting Steve Lomas’ side to leave the capital with all three points and allowing Dunfermline to move within a point – a worrying scenario given that the East End Park side still have a game in hand and Hibs appear no closer to resolving their own inadequacies.

“That’s the story of our season,” lamented the visibly disgusted Hibs assistant manager Billy Brown. “We are where we are because of the goals-against column. Even in the last two games, we won but in those two games we conceded two to Cowdenbeath and two to Dunfermline. To get into the position where we get it back to 1-1 and then lose the second through abysmal defending and then get it 2-2 and lose another bad one, that’s the way it has been going.”

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The acquisition of a more experienced or, simply a more resilient, defender has become an even bigger priority than ever. “But whether that happens or not… it’s not easy to get players at this time of the year and one player doesn’t always make a difference. Everybody has got to pull together. Defensively we are poor, no doubt about it. We saw that today. But credit to St Johnstone.

“I don’t know if it is a lack of concentration, it is a lack of resilience and determination. That’s what you need in a situation like that. To be fair, St Johnstone had one or two more chances but to get it back to 2-2, collectively we have to defend better than that.”

Brown was not willing to concede that the relegation battle is now a two-way battle but he was adamant that his men have to find some doggedness if they are to ensure that they are not still in the mix come May.

The frustration was that having given their chances a boost last weekend, they could not build on it yesterday. “Well done to Dunfermline to go down to Kilmarnock and win 3-0 after their last two. They showed some balls there and now this club has got to show the same.”

St Johnstone by contrast are a team unwilling to succumb to pre-season predictions. Few would have bet on them being up challenging for a European place but this win sees them in fourth place, level on points with third-placed Hearts.

After a sprightly start from Hibs, they took the lead through debutant Lee Croft. The attacking midfielder was bright and gave young Callum Booth a torrid time as he rampaged down the right flank, pressing for the byline one minute and wrong footing him, evading tackles as he cut inside the next. The goal then was just reward for his endeavours and came in the 29th minute. The initial shot was blocked by Paul Hanlon but he buried the second effort.

With both teams pressing and St Johnstone edging it in terms of the better chances, they weren’t clinical to really punish the Hibs rearguard and they suffered when Hibs equalised in the 69th minute. Steven Anderson was judged to have impeded Leigh Griffiths and the home striker, who was the key performer for his side, stepped up to send Peter Enckelman the wrong way from the spot and leave the ball nestled in the bottom corner of the net.

That was the start of some Hibs defensive nonsense and the resultant goal glut. A minute later St Johnstone had regained the lead when David Stephens failed to deal with a long ball and Liam Craig forced him to pay the price.

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By this stage the play was end to end with St Johnstone boss Lomas describing the final 21 minutes as an enthralling spectacle as Hibs sought a way back into things and St Johnstone looked for the goal to seal matters. It was Hibs who netted first, though. This time Booth showed greater prowess going forward than he had at the back and in the 83rd minute whipped in a low effort to beat Enckelman. But again Hibs showed little durability and, three minutes later, Fran Sandaza displayed the finishing ability which Rangers may have been rash to give up on. It was all too easy for the striker as he wheeled and shot.

Billy Brown said it has been the story of Hibs’ season. It’s a horror story and there needs to be a twist in it soon.