IF in doubt, blame the beautiful game. First, it was Tony Mowbray, who indicated after his last, disastrous match in charge of Celtic that his philosophy might not be suited to the Scottish Premier League. Now it is John Hughes, wondering if his Hibernian players are good enough to perform with the kind of adventure he encourages.
He has to try something. Anything. If the alarm bells weren’t loud enough before Saturday’s humiliation at Hamilton, they are deafening now. Two wins in 13 matches. Eight points behind third-placed Dundee United with a game more played. Just six ahead of Hearts. Anyway you look at it, the mystery is how this struggling team could have been entrusted, earlier in the season, with splitting the Old Firm. Save for a short spell before half-time, when Colin Nish gave them a deserved equaliser, this was another of these head-scratching days on which Hibs are all too easily swept aside.
As well as conceding two penalties, they missed one of their own, and granted substitute Joel Thomas the freedom of New Douglas Park in the closing stages, when the French substitute rounded off quite a thrashing.
Hughes, renowned for his faith in the game’s finer points, admitted afterwards that he might have to think again. “You can’t defend the way we are defending and expect to win football matches, but as a coach or manager, I’m sitting looking at it – I’ve been looking at it for a while now – [thinking] maybe we are not as good as we think we are. Maybe I have to go in there and help them and set it up to be hard to beat. Maybe we are too expansive.”
It is a depressing theory. If one of the SPL’s stronger squads, and one of its most principled managers, cannot secure results without shutting up shop, something somewhere has gone awry. It wasn’t beyond Ross County, who beat Hibs at their own game in the Scottish Cup quarter-final, so it shouldn’t be beyond Messrs Riordan, Stokes and Miller.
After all, they seemed to manage it well enough earlier in the season.
Or did they? More than a few were unconvinced by Hibs’ rise to third place, which often relied on the individualism of Riordan and Stokes. Take them out of the equation, as many opponents have lately, and there’s not much left. Their only wins in what has been a wretched sequence have been against Kilmarnock and Falkirk. From their last 11 league matches, they have gleaned just eight points. Were they to show that form over the course of a season, they wouldn’t even come close to avoiding relegation.
Like any side in the midst of so dismal a run, they are short of confidence. Ever since Hughes told them to target third place, they have shied away from it at every opportunity. “We are going to have to play a lot better if we want to win matches in the top six and try to get that European spot,” said Hughes. “Maybe it’s frightened them a wee bit, me talking about the European spot. Maybe one or two of them haven’t got that mind-set. I’ve been there myself as a player, when things are not going for you and you’re losing that half a yard, that wee bit of confidence."
Hamilton took an early lead courtesy of Simon Mensing’s retaken penalty, before Nish’s header restored parity. When Ian Murray brought down Dougie Imrie early in the second half, referee Steve Conroy again pointed to the spot. Quite a stramash broke out among the Hamilton players, with Thomas, who had been on the field only a couple of minutes, demanding to take it. Mensing, who has never missed a penalty in his senior career, told him where to go and dispatched it high and wide of the goalkeeper, just as he had done – twice - in the first half. “Simon is an expert at penalty kicks,” said his manager, Billy Reid. “When I saw big Joel getting the ball I just had a chuckle.”
Thomas, though, had the last laugh. The Frenchman on loan from Colchester United, still seeking his first goal in two spells with Accies, rectified that anomaly in spectacular fashion as the roof caved in on Hibs. His thumping shot from outside the box put his team 3-1 up before a late fourth completed his double. The substitute was allowed time and space to control a dropping ball on the edge of his opponents’ penalty area before rounding the goalkeeper and sliding it over the line.
Tomas Cerny saved a late penalty by Abdessalam Benjelloun, but it was the frequency with which Hibs are conceding them that exercised Hughes afterwards. “I think that’s seven in the last 12 games,” he said. “You need to put your finger on it. There has to be a reason for that.” It is not the only mystery that needs solving at Easter Road.