Eoin DOYLE staked a claim for his place in Hibs Scottish Cup final team as he struck twice in the final four minutes to fire Pat Fenlon’s side into pole position in the race for seventh place in the SPL table as the Easter Road outfit stretched their unbeaten run to five matches.
Although Fenlon made a raft of changes with the Scottish Cup final in mind – top scorer Leigh Griffiths the most notable absentee – Hibs took an early lead with Scott Robertson’s first goal for the club, only for Killie kid Lee Ashcroft to equalise minutes into the second half.
But just as the game looked to be heading for a 1-1 draw, Doyle stepped in with two late goals which allowed Hibs to leapfrog both Kilmarnock and Aberdeen. Now victory against relegated Dundee on Saturday in the final match before Celtic at Hampden will see Fenlon’s side finish top of the bottom half. Not quite what they had hoped for earlier in the season, but still a distinct improvement on the past couple of campaigns.
Both sets of players wore black armbands and a minute’s applause was held before kick-off in tribute to Jim Haswell, the ardent Killie fan who collapsed with a heart attack and later died in hospital when these two sides met in Ayrshire a week past Sunday, the tragedy bringing that game to an abrupt halt and necessitating this replay.
Fenlon made six changes to the side which enjoyed victory at Tynecastle. The fact 28-goal Griffiths wasn’t even on the bench obviously reduced his chances of becoming the first Hibs player in 40 years to hit the 30 mark in a season, a target the 22-year-old talisman had openly talked of only hours before kick-off.
Fenlon, however, obviously decided, as was his prerogative, that the cup final took precedence over personal glory, a factor which was also behind the absence of goalkeeper Ben Williams who, up to last night, had played in every minute of every game, paving the way for Sean Murdoch to make his Hibs debut in the penultimate SPL match.
Midfield duo Jorge Claros and Tom Taiwo also missed out entirely, while Alex Harris was among the substitutes, as was the derby hero Ross Caldwell, giving Gary Deegan, Doyle, David Wotherspoon and Scott Robertson, who have been somewhat peripheral players in recent weeks, the opportunity to stake their claim for a place at Hampden in ten days time.
Club captain James McPake sat out his second match in succession, but a heartening sight for the couple of hundred Hibs fans who had made the trip to Ayrshire was Ryan McGivern sitting in the away dug-out, the on-loan Manchester City defender signalling he has overcome the knee injury which saw him miss the derby as he replaced Deegan for the final 17 minutes.
Hibs had gone into the match knowing victory would take them to seventh place, leapfrogging both their hosts and Aberdeen with Saturday’s final match at home to relegated Dundee offering them the opportunity to clinch that position.
They got off to the best possible start against a very young Killie side by taking the lead after only five minutes. The home players were less than pleased with referee Craig Charleston’s decision to award Fenlon’s side a free-kick, adjudging Ashcroft had nudged Doyle rather than the Irishman backing into him.
Lewis Stevenson pitched the ball from the centre circle into the penalty area where Jordon Forster was lurking to nod it in the direction of the far post, Robertson the first to react as he arrived to prod it into the net from a couple of yards, collecting a sore one for his troubles as he collided with the woodwork.
Killie’s inexperience led to a string of unforced errors, much to the frustration of the home support, and Danny Handling might have been in had he been off his mark a split-second sooner as Alan Maybury hurled a long ball forward, Rugby Park goalkeeper Cammy Bell misjudging its flight and unconvincingly heading it away, having found himself out of his area.
Griffiths had remained at home in Edinburgh, but had he been at Rugby Park to witness that shaky start from Killie first hand, he had no doubt have felt the chances had been there to get him closer if not to his 30 goal target.
Kenny Shiels’ side slowly gained a measure of composure, however, although the only effort they had in the opening 45 minutes was a rising shot from Rory McKenzie which was never going to trouble Murdoch. Wotherspoon, though, caused a momentary worry for Hibs with a slack pass which saw tricky winger Chris Johnston fire a low ball across goal, but Paul Hanlon was on hand to avert any hint of danger.
Robertson thought he had doubled Hibs lead six minutes from the interval as Maybury’s well-judged cross-field ball dropped over the head of James Fowler, the midfielder slotting a low shot beyond Bell, only for referee Charleston to rule he had used an arm to bring it down.
Doyle might have rendered that moment meaningless as he got his head to Wotherspoon’s corner, but the Chesterfield-bound striker’s effort lacked any sense of direction and spun harmlessly wide.
The interval gave Shiels the chance to reorganise and within two minutes of the restart, it needed a good block from Forster to prevent Paul Heffernan equalising.
Applause ripped round the ground again early in the second half, marking the moment Mr Haswell had collapsed as Killie continued to enjoy the upper hand. Shiels’ men made the most of their dominance as Ashcroft rose to meet Johnston’s corner from the left, his header dropping in at Murdoch’s right hand post with Wotherspoon unable to get up sufficiently to prevent it doing so.
Kilmarnock almost got their noses in front when substitute Borja Perez cracked a shot off the post, only for Heffernan, with the goal gaping, to fire the rebound wildly over.
Doyle thought he had put Hibs back in front as he met Wotherspoon’s cross with a close-range header, placing the ball beyond Bell, only to see the offside flag raised against him.
The Irishman had another opportunity as he threw himself at substitute Alex Harris’ cross, but on this occasion the ball slipped a couple of inches wide with Bell caught flat-footed.
Doyle’s persistence paid off, however, with those two late goals. He initiated the move for the first, spraying the ball out to Harris and getting himself into the six-yard box to meet the youngster’s driven cross. It was probably enough to seal the win, but Doyle wasn’t finished there, gathering himself to drive the ball beyond Bell for a second time after Killie had failed to clear Harris’ corner.