ALL 11,058 fans who entered Easter Road were given a free chocolate bar courtesy of the match-day sponsors – but for Hibs supporters there was nothing sweeter than the sight of Gary Smith nodding home a last-minute winner.
And if they choked a little in disbelief as they munched their freebies they could easily have been forgiven as it was the veteran defender’s first league goal for Hibs in some 130 SPL appearances in a green-and-white jersey.
The 34-year-old may have had a long wait to find himself the centre of the wild celebrations which followed his goal, but his timing couldn’t have been better.
With Hearts and Aberdeen, Hibs’ rivals for the coveted third place in the table, both winning, Smith’s strike turned what looked like being a disappointing afternoon into one of joy. However, had Hibs dropped two vital points they would have had no-one but themselves to blame having twice led the SPL’s basement club only to be hauled back on each occasion as a result of slack defending.
When Dean Shiels fired home his fifth goal of the season either side of Derek Riordan and then Stephen Glass striking the woodwork, it appeared only a matter of how many for Hibs.
But the vulnerability Tony Mowbray’s side from set-pieces was exposed as Jim McIntyre rose to power home a header from a Mark Wilson corner, a set-back which Garry O’Connor overcame as he rifled a superb shot across United goalkeeper Tony Bullock and into the far corner of the net.
United, though, pulled themselves level again as substitute Jason Scotland took advantage of hesitancy on the part of Gary Caldwell to score with his very first touch of the ball. Ian Murray was sent off in the 83rd minute after the assistant referee drew the referee’s attention to an incident involving Murray and Mark Kerr, video replays showing the stand-in right back has taken a swing at Kerr. The red card meant an automatic one-game ban for captain Murray meaning he missed the following Scottish Cup semi- final against United.
In the end it didn’t cost his side any of the points at Easter Road, with Gary Smith popping up at the end of some penalty box pinball wizardry to head home a last-minute winner that was as controversial as it was unwanted in the eyes of the visiting ranks.
Coming from a free-kick after Garry O’Connor was grounded, his tumble had the away technical area jumping in fury, while the eventual header prompted Bullock to charge almost to the halfway line to query the far side official’s decision not to flag for offside.
The goal hero, who usually sits back at set-pieces, admitted that he only actually ventured up field due to Murray’s absence. It said everything about the desire and never-say-die spirit of the Hibs team who were one man down when they all busied themselves in the away box but it was another hammer blow to United who lost ground in the bid to escape the relegation zone, with the teams immediately above them picking up points. But, before learning that their rivals for third place, Hearts and Aberdeen, had collected maximum points, most Hibs fans considered this game a mere warm-up for the big Hampden showdown the following Saturday.
As it turned out, United were the victors that day, coming behind from a second-half Riordan penalty to win 2-1.