St Mirren 1 - 0 Hibernian: Nerves fray for toothless Hibs

THREE points in front with three games to play, Hibernian still have the edge over Dunfermline in the relegation battle. After this nervous and largely toothless display, however, that advantage may well feel illusory.

The momentum is certainly in favour of the Fife club, who have picked up four points out of the last six while Hibs have taken none. And yesterday there was not even the consolation for Hibs, as there had been against Kilmarnock a week earlier, of knowing that they had played well but had somehow ended up on the losing side.

True, Pat Fenlon’s team could have come away with a point from this game without anyone seeing it as a major injustice. St Mirren played prettily at times, yet other than the move which produced the only goal of the game by Kenny McLean, they had little cutting edge. But that little was still more than Hibs had.

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Without Garry O’Connor, who sat out this match because of illness but should be available for the game at Aberdeen on Wednesday, Hibs lacked weight and presence up front. Leigh Griffiths battled hard against a defence who were determined to make amends for losing four goals to Dunfermline in their previous outing, but at times tried to do too much on his own.

In central midfield, Lewis Stevenson and Isaiah Osbourne also worked well at times, even though St Mirren’s Jim Goodwin and Graham Carey had the better of the first half. And the Hibs defence, marshalled well by captain James McPake, continued to look far more sure-footed than they were earlier in the season.

But the modest improvement which Hibs have achieved in most areas of their game has come from a very low starting point. And on this evidence, that improvement has already come to a halt.

Although St Mirren were on top early on, the first real chance fell to the visiting team. A corner from the right by Griffiths was headed back across goal by Paul Hanlon to George Francomb, but the Englishman’s shot from the edge of the box was too high.

Griffiths picked up the first yellow card of the day minutes later after going in late on Paul McGowan as St Mirren mounted an attack down the right. That move ended when Hibs conceded a corner, and when Graham Carey delivered it to the back post Steven Thompson should have done better than nod wide of Mark Brown’s goal.

Bookings for Jim Goodwin and Mark McAusland before half-time put St Mirren ahead on the card count, and they had the advantage in more positive aspects of the play as well. But, having come second best when it came to attractive football, Hibs nonetheless produced better scoring opportunities in the last ten minutes or so of the half.

First Griffiths conjured up a chance out of nothing, sending in a speculative shot from more than 30 yards. The attempt took a deceptive swerve, but ended up just wide of the left post.

Craig Samson had that one covered, but the St Mirren goalkeeper would have been unable to do anything about the chance which fell to Eoin Doyle not long afterwards. A raking pass by James McPake from inside his own half found the Irishman down the right channel, but as Samson raced out of goal Doyle could do no better than loft it beyond the ’keeper and wide of the net.

Doyle, drafted in to replace O’Connor, had drifted out of the game for long spells. That was a marked contrast with Griffiths, who always looked busy, and it was noticeable that the pair had rarely been able to link up in the first 45 minutes.

That changed within a minute of the restart, however, as Griffiths broke down the right and produced a neat cut-back into the path of Doyle. The shot was blocked, but the move at least gave evidence of the greater urgency that Hibs needed to show after a lacklustre first-half display.

Doyle continued to look lively, and on the hour mark forced a first-rate save from Samson after latching on to a poor clearance, skipping inside two men and shooting low to the right. The shot was heading just inside the post, but Samson got a strong hand to it to keep it out.

St Mirren manager Danny Lennon put Dougie Imrie and Steven Thomson on in a bid to get his side back into the match, and within a minute Imrie had delivered a decent cross which Kenny McLean headed over. Two minutes later, McLean and Imrie, with the help of a couple of team-mates, combined again, this time far more effectively.

Smart play by Imrie down the left, combined with Francomb committing himself too early, put Jereon Tesselaar in space. He cut inside to McLean, and the midfielder swept the ball past Brown.

It was a bitter blow for Hibs, and they felt even more frustrated moments later when Stephen Finnie denied a strong penalty claim after Griffiths went down in a challenge with Imrie. The referee did find in the Hibs striker’s favour, however, when he was pulled back by McAusland, and a second booking for the defender meant St Mirren were a man down for the last dozen minutes.

Resisting the temptation to sit back on their lead, they kept up the tempo and saw as much of the ball during those closing stages as their opponents did. “You’re going down with the Rangers,” the home support sang at Hibs, whose frustration was complete when Stevenson joined McAusland in being dismissed for a second yellow card. The midfielder will miss the trip to Pittodrie as a result.

St Mirren: Samson, Van Zanten, McAusland, Mair, Tesselaar, McGowan, Goodwin (McGregor 76), McLean, Carey (Imrie 61), Thompson, Hasselbaink (Thomson 61). Subs not used: Smith, Murray, Teale, Reilly.

Hibernian: Brown, Doherty, McPake, Hanlon, Kujabi (Wotherspoon 87), Francomb (Sproule 77), Osbourne, Stevenson, Soares, Griffiths, Doyle (Donovan 74). Subs not used: Grant, O’Hanlon, Murray, Claros.

Referee: S Finnie.

Paul McGowan (St Mirren)

Creativity and commitment combined made the midfielder the most effective performer of the afternoon. Ably assisted by Imrie for the final half-hour, McGowan did most over the piece to ensure a home win.