Problem was, it didn’t stop the Leith side from being typically rotten. In a forgettable first half they were aggressive to the point of being eye-wateringly agricultural and precious little more. Later, when their sightings of goal and share of possession encouragingly outstripped their hosts, they were still pretty toothless.
Still, the outcome and obduracy certainly represented baby steps in the right direction for Hibs followers after four straight defeats and five games without a clean sheet. The ebullient Butcher, understandably, couldn’t resist presenting day one at the coal face for the Easter Road club as having been generously productive.
Starting off in reasonable fashion, with the match a “solid start”, giving him “an unbeaten run of one”, and the performance of his players “delighting” him as they became “more cohesive, played the game in St Mirren’s half” and ensured “Ben Williams didn’t have a thing to do” in the second period, he really started cranking.
“All the boys were great,” he mused. “I called them heroes because I think they were after the pressure they were under from losing four on the spin and not scoring. OK, we haven’t scored today, but
it was a much, much better
performance. They all put a shift in today and if we get that level of energy and commitment from the players, we will be very happy.”
That’s a maybe, but it was left to St Mirren schemer Paul McGowan – who in two minutes sent through Steven Thompson, only for the striker to scuff the ball wide in the best opening of the entire afternoon – to call out the lunchtime televised encounter for what it was. “They were just tackles and it was just a game of football that lacked class. It was like a Sunday League game,” he said, getting straight to the point.
One challenge might have altered the entire complexion of the confrontation, with Darren McGregor appearing to clip James Collins as he ran across him in the box midway through the first period. “Well, the sun was in my eyes,” said Butcher. “I think it was in Stevie McLean’s eyes as well. It could have been a penalty. James is saying it was a penalty, but I don’t know what the TV showed. It was just one of those things, in the end we got on with it. We said at half time that one goal would win it. We did try, we got loads of crosses in the box and that’s encouraging. We just couldn’t get a finishing touch, we just couldn’t get goal the crowd were craving, and at the Hibs end too. I thought they were going to suck it into the net at one point.”
At times of late, that has seemed the only way Hibs might score. The 1,198 Hibbies who made their way to Paisley came to life as their team did likewise in the second period, but by then they were bereft of main striker Paul Heffernan, lost to a torn thigh muscle only five minutes in, which Butcher confirmed will keep him out for a considerable period. “I think he’s got his Christmas booked in the Bahamas or somewhere,” Butcher joked. “That didn’t help, but I felt James Collins did very well, led the line magnificently well. And Danny Handling, he’s only a youngster, but wow, I like him. It’s great to see someone step up like that. I’ve seen him in one training session and he did enough in that to excite me and I thought ‘Go on then, on you go’. It gave us a good shape to the team.”
Butcher at times made his team sound like world beaters when they couldn’t even be St Mirren beaters, but nowadays there is no shame in that. Danny Lennon’s men may not have succeeded in their quest to rack up four straight league wins for the first time in five years, but they can boast a run of seven matches in which they have only once been bested. A remarkable turnaround for supposedly Lennon’s last days two months ago, and McGowan, though feeling his side should have won, could also see value in the tied scoreline.
“When we look back, I’m sure it’ll feel like a good point for us in the end against a Hibs team that’ll be on the up,” he said. “And looking back, if that had been in the first five or six games we’d have buckled under the pressure in the second half. But the character and belief we have now is incredible, considering the start we had. We’re confident of a result in every game now.”
Butcher might be on to Lennon for some tips in how to transform a season. St Mirren are proof it can be achieved, and achieved rapidly.
Van Zanten (79)