Friday, February 15, 2013

SPL: Stuttering Hibs

Fifth in the league, a point better off after 26 games of this season than they were after the SPL had run it's course last season.

Hibs fans, punch drunk from their annus horribilis, heard promises in the summer of a rebuilt side capable of making progress.

A top six berth after two-thirds of the season does indeed point to progress. But statistics, as students of the number crunching Craig Brown know only too well, can hide a multitude of sins.

Hibs have clung grimly to their league position despite a run of just seven points in ten games.

They slipped from fourth following Monday's meek capitulation to St Johnstone at Easter Road. It's not impossible that the SPL's unpredictable middle ten could throw up a combination of results that condemn them to ninth place by the middle of next week.

Fans could be forgiven for not travelling to tomorrow's match with St Mirren - whose last seven points have been garnered from just three games - with songs of joy in their hearts.

Hibs (2.8 at remain five points ahead of their opponents - in the SPL's flabby midrift they are separated by five teams - but St Mirren (2.3) just edge ahead as favourites.

Home advantage counts. But so to must the laboured way Hibs have gone about their business of late.

After shipping three goals in successive games against Inverness and Motherwell in December, Pat Fenlon did successfully stop the flow of goals.

Just four were conceded in the next eight games. Unfortunately only four were scored.

The impression was of a team that couldn't confidently attack if they were to remain competent in defence. On Monday they could do neither and St Johnstone filled their boots.

Leigh Griffiths has too often been isolated up front, sometimes alone and sometimes partnered with the willing but profligate Eoin Doyle.

The younger alternatives in attack seem to have been deemed too raw to start. The moribund Shefki Kuqi's experience is rendered impotent by immobility.

The midfield often looks too flat footed to help out, David Wotherspoon's early season rejuvenation replaced by a hesitant anonymity while others are happy to graft but unwilling, unable or simply not encouraged to play a meaningful offensive role.

Where Paul Cairney offered sparks of creativity into the autumn, he's now slipping to the periphery, a tendency to embonpoint looking more like a problematic heavy arsedness on deteriorating pitches.

Ben Williams impresses in goal behind a defence that often sits too deep, especially on those occasions - and there have been a few of late - when James McPake is preoccupied by finding his own form. Tim Clancy's ongoing injury problems necessitate a starting back four that is susceptible to individual errors.

Yet Fenlon can rightly point to progress at the back. 34 goals conceded in 26 games compares favourably with the 50 conceded at the same stage last year. A goal difference of -1 is nothing to write home about but it knocks last season's -26 into a cocked hat.

So is this wintry malaise a blip and nothing more?

This supporter hopes so.

Scott Robertson and Matt Done arrived in January to provide more incisive options in midfield. Both started on Monday. Both will hope to quickly make amends.

The feeling persists, however, that the transfer window was not used to address gaps in the squad. Too often of late Fenlon's changes look like so much fiddling while Easter Road gurns.

Let us be sanguine and say that in the travails of recent years enduring a mid season blip while remaining in the top half of the table with a Scottish Cup quarter final to come would have been considered a position of some luxury.

But my reading of the mood suggests patience is becoming frayed.

Taking the same number of points in two games against Celtic as they have from three against an adrift Dundee suggests Fenlon hasn't cracked what we might romantically call the Hibs enigma or more prosaically label the destructive inconsistency of the club.

To hear a manager say he's "embarrassed" by a performance 26 games into a season, a performance indicative of "the last few weeks [when] we haven't shown the desire to win football matches" is about as depressing as spending Valentine's Day writing about the travails of your team.

The potential remains for this season to be one of positive progress.

But Fenlon needs to find a higher gear soon to avoid yet another year of broken promises. He could do worse than start in Paisley this weekend.

St Mirren v Hibs prediction: If I must, based on the perhaps forlorn hope that a reaction to Monday night should be inevitable, Hibs to win 2-1 (10.5.)