Hibs 2-1 Kilmarnock: Green shoots of receovery grow

Getting there. Back-to-back home wins may not quite have lifted Hibs clear of the danger zone, but there's no doubt the SPL table makes far more pleasant reading for Colin Calderwood and his players today.

Six precious points garnered from the visits of St Mirren and Kilmarnock have hammered out a clear message to those who were all too willing to write off the Easter Road outfit, insisting a miserable record of just two points from ten matches would ultimately end in relegation.

It was hard to argue otherwise, particularly when those dismal statistics were underpinned by a run of seven matches without even a goal, a spell which encompassed a Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Second Division part-timers Ayr United.

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Now, though, while hardly able to trumpet that Hibs "are back", the future is certainly looking more promising for the Edinburgh club with Calderwood's January imports having made an immediate impact, proving the side with a steel and backbone which on this occasion enabled them to overcome the handicap of playing out the final 19 minutes with ten men to clinch all three points from a Kilmarnock team which, arguably, can be regarded as the most entertaining in Scotland's top flight at the moment.

Despite the loss of playmaker Alexei Eremenko to suspension, Mixu Paatelainen's players were at their fluent best throughout the opening 45 minutes, forcing their hosts to work hard just to keep themselves on level terms, something they did admirably with Victor Palsson providing an effective shield in front of the back four while Ian Murray and Matt Thornhill snapped at heels, giving their opponents at little time as possible on the ball.

Even so, Killie had their chances, Mehdi Taouil bringing out a decent save from Graham Stack, while on-loan Everton striker Kieran Agard passed up a glorious opportunity when, having taken possession in a distinctly offside looking position, he turned inside Paul Hanlon and drove a low shot into the side-netting.

And the Ayrshire club were made to pay for that profligacy, another of Calderwood's signings Akpo Sodje striking up an instant rapport with the fans as he outmuscled Manuel Pascali before composing himself and slotting the ball beyond substitute goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola for his first goal in a green and white shirt. "Sodje, there's only one Sodje," sang the supporters in a manner reminiscent of the way they greeted Franck Sauzee.

As the Four Tops once sang: "Same old song, but with a different meaning now you been gone."

Nevertheless it was much appreciated by the hitman, who said: "It was a relief, as a striker coming into a new League, a new club, you want that first goal. So I am happy to have done so, pleased the fans have taken to me and hopefully I can keep them on, not just my side, but the team's for the rest of the season."

Less happy with Sodje's goal was Pascali and Killie boss Paatelainen who claimed the defender had been impeded, the Italian himself insisting: "He kicked my feet so I could not stand."

Calderwood himself expressed a little surprise that there had been no whistle but when informed of Pascali's complaint, Sodje, who has seemed to hesitate having wriggled free of his opponent, grinned wryly and replied: "He said I kicked his feet? I don't think so. I think he just made a wrong decision, the pitch was quite slippy.

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"My eyes were on the ball, the referee did not blow the whistle, he did not give anything."

Kilmarnock's mood wasn't helped when, 16 minutes later referee Steve Conroy pointed to the spot after Derek Riordan had tangled with Mo Sissoko, Palsson stepping forward to become fifth different penalty kick taker this season, the Icelandic youngster proving more successful than Riordan, John Rankin and Merouane Zemmama.

Again Paatelainen believed Conroy had got it wrong, while Pascali argued the difference in height and physique between the combatants probably weighed in Riordan's favour. Calderwood admitted it was a soft award, saying: "An arm definitely came across but I would hate to have a penalty given against me like that. But we will take it."

The dust had hardly settled on that incident when Kilmarnock got a spot-kick of their own, assistant referee Keith Sorbie stepping in to advise Conroy after the lead official, who was only five yards away from the action, waved play on when Francis Dickoh challenged Agard. Dickoh saw red and Jamie Hamill stepped up to claim his third goal of the season against Hibs.

As Calderwood observed: "The penalty and Dickoh's sending off made it really exciting. It was a foul right in front of goal but I don't think there was any intent and there are occasions when a penalty kick is enough. We were hoping he got a touch on the ball, but I do not know if he did, it looked quite innocuous."

Nineteen minutes remaining, a man down and now leading by a solitary goal presented Hibs not only with a test of their stamina but their mental resolve, Calderwood proving totally pragmatic as he sought to protect that slender advantage. He replaced first Riordan and then Sodje to stiffen middle and back as he left David Wotherspoon with the thankless task of operating up-front all by himself.

And those tactics worked to perfection but thanks in no small measure to an outstanding save from Stack three minutes into added-on time, the goalkeeper standing tall as Craig Bryson bore in on him to blast a shot off his chest.

The sighs of relief were almost as loud as the cheers which greeted the final whistle, the second half having produced 45 minutes of explosive action which included a melee on the halfway line prompted by a challenge by Hibs substitute Martin Scott on Killie midfielder Tim Clancy, one branded by Paatelainen as "reckless," and ended with five players shown the yellow card as Conroy, who had a poor afternoon overall, battled to reassert his authority.

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There was little doubt the final outcome was a triumph of effort and commitment over style, the win vital for Hibs but a defeat for Killie which, Pascali admitted, was a massive blow to the Rugby Park outfit, one which saw them concede further ground to third-placed Hearts and also prevented them opening up a greater advantage over the clubs immediately below them.

At the moment, though, few at Easter Road will complain at how victory is achieved. Two massive steps in the right direction have been taken but with a trip to St Mirren next weekend and a visit to Hamilton in the near future, they represent only the start of what is still a long journey to complete safety.