It was always a forlorn hope, that Hibs could go to Celtic Park, emerge victorious and results elsewhere conspire to sneak a place in the SPL’s top six.
The bookies rarely get it wrong and the odds of some 200-1 offered should such a scenario have emerged from the final day’s fixtures before the split clearly reflected the enormity of situation confronting Pat Fenlon’s players as they travelled to the east end of Glasgow.
Optimistic noises had, naturally, been made, with references to the way in which Hibs had twice fought back to earn a well-merited draw at this particular venue earlier in the season and Leigh Griffiths’ winner against the Hoops at Easter Road a few days after Christmas.
That was then, though, and this was now. Deep down those Hibs fans who made the journey from Edinburgh knew a place in the bottom half of the table beckoned for a third successive season, the heady expectation brought by that remarkable start to the season having long since faded, Fenlon’s side with only one league win to their name since that victory over the champions elect at the end of December.
Ultimately, four points separated the Capital outfit from achieving their ambition – although at one time even second place seemed well within their grasp – leading skipper James McPake to urge on-lookers to “do the maths” and work out the cost to Hibs of those two glaring refereeing gaffes in recent weeks against Dundee United and Hearts.
Hibs fans will rightly feel those mistakes cost them big time, allowing United to snatch the last place in the top six with a late, late goal from Rory Boulding.
The big defender reflected: “I don’t think I’m being bitter in saying if we had got those two decisions we would be in the top six.” McPake, however, was quick to highlight the instance at Fir Park when, with Hibs leading 1-0, Motherwell’s Stevie Hammell had a “goal” disallowed when the ball had clearly crossed the line, before the Easter Road outfit romped to a 4-0 win. But while refs have undoubtedly got some big calls badly wrong, and not just in matches involving Hibs, McPake could also consider those self-inflicted wounds which probably did as much, if not more, harm to Hibs’ cause than blunders by officials.
For instance, the fact Fenlon’s players managed just one win in six matches, and a mere four points out of a possible 18, against the SPL newcomers Ross County and Dundee, or being two ahead at home to both Inverness Caley and Motherwell only to draw against the Highlanders and lose to the Steelmen.
Even so, until recently Hibs had their destiny very much in their own hands and while Fenlon bristles against what he sees as a negativity directed towards his club, it’s hard for anyone to put a positive spin on a record which divulges that, Scottish Cup results apart, his side have managed just one win in their last 12 games, a run which culminated in three straight defeats.
Why should that be? McPake admitted he was at a loss to explain why Hibs’ season has drifted. He said: “I don’t think there’s any way you can turn round and say I know why we have not been on form. It has not been good enough recently. We have had a few players out through injury but that should not be an excuse. We have enough good players to go out and do the job.”
Supporters, though, will recognise this campaign is hardly unique, a turbo-charged start followed by a second half slump having become all too familiar. The supporters, however, are becoming increasingly exasperated at seeing clubs such as Motherwell and St Johnstone, and this season Inverness and Ross County, who all have much smaller fan bases and consequently tighter budgets, revel in the success which they feel they should be enjoying on a more regular basis.
There is, of course, the prospect of a second successive Cup final to savour, provided, of course, Hibs can take care of Falkirk – who clocked up a fourth successive win at the weekend – in Saturday’s semi at Hampden but as welcome as that may be, Fenlon will be well aware that teams are judged over the marathon of a league season rather than the sprint of a Cup.
To that end, the vast majority of Hibs fans will look upon falling short once more as failure. McPake, however, insisted he wouldn’t apply that description to events, comparing this season to last when Hibs finished 11th and with only 33 points to their name as opposed to the 40 gathered so far.
He said: “It’s disappointing. Finishing in the top six was our aim, that was the thing we put out, what we wanted to do. We are a big club in terms of Scottish football so we should be looking to finish as high up the league as possible and top six should be a minimum for us although we don’t have any divine right.
“I don’t think it’s a failure if we finish seventh in the league or go out and do well in the last part of the season. Look where we were last season. We are talking about goals that were not given, stuff like that being a fine margin for getting into the top six.
“I think that itself shows an improvement. If we’d finished in the top six I’d have been sitting here saying I wanted to finish second so regardless of where we finish we will always say we wanted to do that bit better. But we have to look at the improvements, not just in our league position but as a team and things that are getting done at the football club now.
“I am sure the manager will have his own ideas on what went wrong and will be starting to put that right for next year.”
No doubt one topic which will be exercising Fenlon’s mind will be strengthening his strikeforce. The Irishman would say otherwise, but there has been an over-reliance on Leigh Griffiths who has scored exactly half of Hibs’ 40 goals in the SPL and, here’s a sobering fact, notched ten of his club’s 15 goals in their last 17 matches.
The on-loan Wolves hitman, of course, isn’t certain to still be at Hibs next season and with Eoin Doyle on his way to Chesterfield and this season having proved one too many for veteran frontman Shefki Kuqi, it’s obvious that area will be a priority for Fenlon.
Griffiths was again deployed as a lone striker at Celtic Park but, starved of service, he never threatened with Hibs unable to get either David Wotherspoon or young Alex Harris alongside him in support often enough. Fenlon had flooed the midfield in an effort to stifle Celtic but after Kris Commons opened the scoring in the 16th minute it was obvious there was no way back for his side.
Commons added a second, missed badly to deny himself a hat-trick and Mikael Lustig diverted Joe Ledley’s cross in for a third, the ball coming off his arm leaving Fenlon annoyed referee James Beaton hadn’t spotted the infringement although the game was well beyond his side by that stage.
McPake said: “First and foremost you are looking to keep it tight but that wasn’t our only plan. We came with the idea of trying to get the ball down and play football but I don’t think we started great.”
But, as Hibs needed a big performance they fell well short. As McPake acknowledged, it’s one thing having such a plan in mind and an entirely different thing to execute it at a place like Celtic Park. He admitted: “I don’t think we did enough, certainly not to win but even to play a part in the game.”