Almost there. Not quite, but almost. Avoid defeat against Dunfermline on Monday night and Hibs will finally have escaped the threat of relegation.
Pat Fenlon’s side took a huge step towards SPL safety, having seen their advantage over the Pars, long-time favourites for the drop, cut to a mere three points, by hanging on for a vital win in Aberdeen, conjuring up a repeat of their 2-1 victory over the Dons in the semi-final of the William Hill Scottish Cup only a few weeks ago.
By the time the final blast of referee Calum Murray’s whistle resounded around Pittodrie, the nerves of all in green and white had been shredded, nails bitten down to the quick, fingers and everything else crossed. An own goal from Aberdeen’s Mark Reynolds and a glancing header from Sean O’Hanlon within the opening 16 minutes appeared to have put Hibs well on the road to victory but that all changed when Scott Vernon pulled one back for the Dons early in the second-half.
But the Easter Road outfit simply refused to buckle, the defending may have got a bit desperate at times but with Dunfermline only managing a draw at Inverness they go into Monday night’s showdown with the Pars with an advantage of five points and knowing that if they avoid defeat they’ll stay up and it will be the Fife club which is playing First Division football next season.
Fenlon, though, was today contemplating nothing less than a win. He said: “We are under no illusions, we know Dunfermline will come and have a right go but we are at home, we are expecting a big crowd and we’ll definitely try to win the game.”
The Irishman, however, admitted this win wasn’t for the faint-hearted and said: “It’s always nervous when you are leading 2-1 but I thought we deserved to win. We could have killed the game off with a third goal but we made it a bit edgy for ourselves.”
Hibs had gone into this vital match minus two key figures, skipper James McPake, rock-solid in the centre of defence, and midfielder Lewis Stevenson, player of the season in the eyes of both his fellow players and the fans, but welcomed the return of top-scorer Garry O’Connor.
A small, but vociferous bunch of Hibs supporters had made the long journey to Pittodrie but they were rewarded both for their loyalty and with a goal within six minutes. That it came from an Aberdeen player mattered not one jot.
Dons youngster Fraser Fyvie was guilty of allowing Isaiah Osbourne to run off him in midfield, the former Aston Villa man picking out Leigh Griffiths who, despite having been pushed wide, managed to turn the ball across the face of goal where it broke off Reynolds and into his own net.
Lifted by that break, one which boss Fenlon would no doubt insist was long overdue, Hibs laid siege to the home side’s goal, O’Connor claiming a push as he went down at the back post as he attempted to get on the end of Tom Soares’ low cross.
The Capital side only had to wait another ten minutes for the second goal though. Osbourne’s driving run into the Dons penalty area ending with his shot taking a deflection off Andy Considine, his disappointment turning to joy as Griffiths whipped in a tremendous corner for O’Hanlon to send a glancing header beyond Jamie Langfield.
It was some way for O’Hanlon to mark his first start in a green and white shirt since facing Aberdeen in Edinburgh in mid-February, his absence over that time masking the fact he had, in fact, made 23 appearances prior to that point.
Astonishingly, it was the first time in almost eight months Hibs had found themselves two goals up in an SPL match and Griffiths went close to adding to that tally as a sparse home crowd voiced their displeasure, the striker only inches out with a free-kick from 30 yards which dipped over the crossbar.
There was a scare, however, for Hibs when Jamie Masson picked out Kari Arnason all alone inside Mark Brown’s penalty area only for the Icelandic star’s first touch to let him down badly. If Fenlon had been disappointed by the results against Kilmarnock and St Mirren but not the per- formances, he’d have been delighted with the desire, attitude and application of his players in the opening 45 minutes of this one, that determination epitomised by Soares’ tenacity in winning the ball for Griffiths despite having been decked, the striker slinging in a shot which fizzed across goal and out.
Arnason’s half-chance apart, Hibs were just as resolute at the back with O’Hanlon and Paul Hanlon ensuring Dons striker Vernon could do nothing with the little service which did come his way.
Brown may have had little to do, but the Hibs goalkeeper almost set up a third goal for his side on the stroke of half-time, his accurately-placed clearance finding Griffiths who brought the ball down only to see his low left-foot shot on the run from 20 yards flash wide.
A third goal was just what Hibs needed to ensure victory and those precious three points were safe and they set about trying for it on the restart, Griffiths’ promising run halted by a well-timed tackle from Josh Magennis before George Francomb didn’t get enough on his shot to over-worry Langfield.
Instead, the entire complexion of the game changed as the Dons hauled themselves back into the match with a goal very much against the run of play, Fyvie was allowed too much time and space to deliver a cross from the right which Gavin Rae nodded back across goal for Vernon to volley home from close-range. The Dons, having been decidedly second-best up to that point, suddenly had their tails up and it was clear the next ten or 15 minutes were going to be a test of character for Fenlon’s players as the home fans roused themselves and began to get behind their team.
Hibs saw themselves through that critical period with some dogged and, at times, desperate defending but it took a great fingertip save from Brown, tipping the ball over his bar, after Arnason had broken through Jorge Claros’ challenge to keep them ahead as the game moved into its final quarter. Langfield, though, had to be equally alert to push Griffiths’ free-kick wide to ensure the game remained on a knife-edge.
The sight of fourth official Steven McLean indicating four minutes of added-on time must have sent a shiver through players, those in the dug-out and those travelling supporters alike. But Fenlon’s players simply dug in that bit farther, gritted their teeth and earned the celebrations which followed the final whistle.