Queen OF THE SOUTH made a mockery of Pat Fenlon’s claim that Hibs could go all the way to Hampden as they left the SPL side looking second best throughout a memorable 90 minutes for the Palmerston Park outfit.
Hibs had travelled to Dumfries hoping the recent signs of revival following two torrid seasons at Easter Road would continue to flourish but, instead, made the long journey home to Edinburgh with their tails between their legs, knowing they had been well beaten by the Second Division side.
Out at the first time of asking in the Scottish Communities League Cup was not how Fenlon had envisaged this match going, the Hibs boss having stated his belief before kick-off that the Capital side could win the trophy.
While no-one could fault the Irishman’s ambition, on reflection he’ll today be wishing he’d never made such a rash prediction, having been left to admit his side had played second fiddle to former Hearts star Allan Johnston’s team throughout.
Goals from Nicky Clark, son of ex-Tynecastle striker and manager Sandy, who is now Johnston’s right-hand man at Palmerston Park, and substitute Gavin Reilly had the match all but over at the halfway stage as the Hibs defence, without the steadying figure of skipper James McPake, was run ragged.
Fenlon had promised to make changes, although not on a wholescale basis, but he did make four as McPake was rested while Alan Maybury, David Wotherspoon and Eoin Doyle dropped to the bench, making way for Sean O’Hanlon, Callum Booth, Pa Kujabi and Shefki Kuqi, the veteran Finnish striker making his first start in a green and white shirt.
Obviously, Fenlon felt he had sufficient strength in depth, but that faith proved to be woefully misplaced as the Doonhamers had their visitors from the Capital on the back foot as they produced what their proud manager described as “a real team performance”, one which left him feeling he could have asked for no more from them.
How Fenlon must have wished he could have shared those sentiments. Instead, he was left to reflect on the shortcomings Johnston’s side had so demonstrably highlighted in what was Hibs first cup action since that abject performance at Hampden in May.
Questions will undoubtedly be raised as to why Fenlon changed a winning team, although the Irishman would say he was justified in handing some of those who have been on the fringe in recent weeks the opportunity to stake their claim for a more regular place given the rigours of the season that lie ahead.
Sadly few, if any, took the chance. Like O’Hanlon, Booth and Kujabi made their first appearance of the season, operating in tandem on the left flank with the little Gambian at left back. Their rustiness was obvious and the root of many of Hibs first half problems as the Dumfries outfit targeted that area.
And it was from there the opening goal came, Kujabi caught on his heels as Derek Lyle played the ball inside him for Daniel Carmichael to steady himself before delivering an inviting low ball to the near post, where Clark nipped in to clip it home.
It might have been a different story had Leigh Griffiths taken advantage seconds earlier, appearing offside as Jorge Claros’ mis-directed shot landed at his feet, the on-loan Wolves hitman appearing to be caught by surprise as he instinctively stuck out a boot only to see the ball loop onto goalkeeper Lee Robinson’s bar.
The early goal had rattled Hibs but they settled again, Kuqi knocking the ball down for Paul Cairney before taking the return, only to drill his shot straight into the arms of Robinson.
But the Doonhamers should have doubled their lead ten minutes from the interval when Daniel Orsi sent Clark free. He evaded the desperate challenge of Paul Hanlon but with only Ben Williams in the Hibs goal to beat, he shot wide.
Again Hibs looked a bundle of nerves, O’Hanlon’s poor pass forcing the big defender into a wild swing which sent the ball back in the direction of Williams at chest height, the goalkeeper doing well to deal with it and avert any further danger.
Griffiths should have levelled affairs in the 38th minute when Booth and Claros exchanged passes, the former slipping the ball left for the striker who agonisingly sliced a left foot shot wide of target.
Hibs were made to pay again three minutes from half-time and once more it was their left flank which was ripped apart, Chris Mitchell offering Carmichael the time and space behind Kujabi to tee up an inch-perfect cross which was met by the diving header of Reilly, who sent the home fans delirious as they saw the ball hit the back of Williams net – a two goal lead no more than the Second Division side deserved.
Fenlon recognised the frailties of his team on the left-hand side of the park, sending on Alan Maybury and David Wotherspoon in place of Kujabi and Booth, but the worry for those fans who’d made the journey from Edinburgh was that the damage had already been done.
Hibs desperately needed an early second half goal, Gary Deegan pouncing on Robinson’s punch from Griffiths’ cross, only to send a low shot whistling past the goalkeeper’s left post.
What they didn’t need, though, were unforced errors, such as the crossfield ball from O’Hanlon which put Maybury, who had slotted in at left back with Cairney switching to that side from the right, in trouble, the experienced defender robbed by Reilly, a deflection taking his effort off target.
Despite the changes made by Fenlon at half-time, Carmichael continued to cause Hibs difficulties, his cross falling just behind Clark, who nevertheless managed a looping header which fell over the bar. A third goal, the home side knew, would put the game, which had already all but slipped away from Hibs, totally out of reach of their opponents and it almost came on the hour mark, Reilly fluffing his shot as he met Orsi’s low cross, much to the relief of Williams and his back four.
At the other end, Robinson was enjoying a far quieter night than he might have expected, Hibs new pairing up front of Griffiths and Kuqi failing to hit it off with the big Finn, having enjoyed just 19 minutes of action in a green and white shirt in those appearances as a substitute against St Mirren and St Johnstone, clearly labouring as the clock ticked on.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when he was replaced by Doyle but, with only 20 minutes remaining, it looked like too little too late to save Hibs from an ignominious defeat and so it proved, another night of Cup misery.
Substitute David Wotherspoon had a late chance to claim a consolation goal for Hibs deep into added on time, the midfielder throwing himself at Cairney’s cross but Robinson comfortably flopped onto the ball to ensure there was nothing at all for Fenlon’s players to take from a dismal performance which harked back to the darkest days of last season.