Mistakes happen. We all make them. But today Hibs will be hoping they don’t live to regret the blunder by referee Alan Muir which most probably cost them two precious points.
With the SPL table so tight, only time will tell just what impact Muir’s decision to award Dundee United a late, late penalty will have when, clearly, Ryan McGivern’s trip on Tannadice winger Gary Mackay-Steven was outside the box.
Only four minutes of regulation time remained when Muir pointed to the spot and with Hibs ahead – goals from skipper James McPake and another stunning Leigh Griffiths strike cancelling out John Rankin’s freak opener for the Tayside club.
Without it, Hibs would today most likely be sitting joint third in the table alongside Motherwell and St Johnstone, a point behind second-placed Inverness Caley. Instead, they find themselves having slipped from the fourth spot they occupied before the weekend’s hostilities got underway to sixth, a point ahead of United who remain ninth.
So slender are the margins for virtually every side in the league with games rapidly running out before the split that, in a few weeks’ time, one point, or even just goals, may well determine which clubs finish the season fighting it out in the top six for European places, or simply playing for nothing, given basement outfit Dundee are all but finished as an SPL side.
While Hibs boss Pat Fenlon was magnanimous in trying to play down just what Muir’s decision might mean, as McGivern pointed out, players rely on the officials to get the big calls right. And to that end Muir got little or no help from his assistant Graham McNeillie who, according to McGivern, was simply dismissive of his appeals.
McGivern fully accepted he’d tripped Mackay-Steven, his argument being, and as television replays clearly showed, the incident had taken place at least a foot outside the penalty area, a foul but in no way a spot-kick.
Justice would have been done had Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams had saved yet another penalty having stopped five of the seven spot-kicks he’d previously faced this season – a sixth had been ballooned over his bar by Motherwell striker Michael Higdon. On this occasion, though, his luck ran out, Johnny Russell slotting his shot away from 12 yards, leaving Fenlon and his players to wonder what might have been – and what yet might be.
Admitting he’d be disappointed if Muir and McNeillie had been influenced by an incident seconds earlier when the home crowd were left raging as Paul Hanlon’s challenge on Russell had gone unpunished – although it, too, occurred outside the penalty area – McGivern said: “I stuck my leg out, I was giving away a free-kick but the referee pointed to the spot, I was shocked. I tried to have a word with the linesman but he was not having any of it. He told me to go away and when they are like that you are not going to get much out of them.
“I think the linesman has to help the referee. I’m not sure what the referee’s position was, but the linesman should be level with play. I’ve seen the replay and it was outside the box when I made the tackle. It was very disappointing.”
Although he appeared to remonstrate with Mackay-Steven, Northern Ireland internationalist McGivern admitted that was borne out of pure frustration on his part. He said: “He’d put me in an awkward position and I knew whenever I put my foot out I was going to be giving away a free-kick.
“At the end of the day the officials are there to make decisions and I think certainly with my one they have got it wrong. I’ve seen Paul’s one again as well and I don’t think that was a penalty either.” Asked if he felt that it might, however, had a bearing on the fateful decision given the United fans’ reaction, McGivern said: “That would be a bit disappointing.”
McGivern, however, insisted that amid the natural reaction to losing such a late equaliser, he and his team-mates could be pretty pleased at having gone to St Mirren and then Tannadice and emerged with four points, reckoning a win over Kilmarnock on Wednesday night would make it “a good week’s work.”
And given the performance Fenlon’s players produced, building on their promising display in Paisley, there’s little doubt they’ll approach the visit of Killie with confidence.
While Hibs may have stuttered somewhat over the course of the past couple of months, the signs are there that they are beginning to regain the self-belief which served them so well earlier in the season, a side willing to get on the ball and pass it – and to some effect.
Mackay-Steven and Russell, United’s main threats, were blunted, the former kept as quiet by Lewis Stevenson, again playing in that unfamiliar role of right back, while the latter barely got a look at Williams’ goal thanks to the efforts of McPake and Hanlon. Resilience, one of the key factors in Hibs’ early surge up the table, has, other than on the odd occasion, been to the fore and it was again on this occasion, the Capital side having to overcome what Fenlon described as a “freak” opening goal from former Easter Road midfielder John Rankin which this time last year would probably have floored them.
There was no danger as Jorge Claros, again a dominant force in the middle of the park alongside Scott Robertson and Tom Taiwo, played the ball back to Williams but as the goalkeeper prepared to clear, Rankin chased in and his perseverance paid off as the Hibs No. 1 thumped the ball off his back and could only look on helplessly as it trundled back past him and into the corner of his net.
Hibs may have been stunned but they shrugged off that setback and for the remainder of the first half they were the dominant force, Griffiths rippling the roof of the United net and then crashing an angled shot off goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak’s right hand post while Taiwo also saw an effort dip just over.
The equaliser came via the head of McPake, the big defender glancing Griffiths’ free-kick towards the back post where it crossed the line for his second goal of the season.
It was no more than Hibs deserved and better was to come as they broke from defending a corner in the 51st minute, Griffiths picking up the ball well inside his own half before tormenting and teasing Rankin until he got into position to hammer a stunning shot which flew past the startled Cierzniak.
United boss Jackie McNamara made an immediate change which saw Jon Daly, who had been operating in the heart of defence, move into his more familiar role spearheading the attack, a move which put Hibs under some pressure with both Keith Watson and Michael Gardyne going close before referee Muir’s big moment.
As disappointed as they might have felt, a few of those players who were involved in that opening day debacle at Tannadice might just have reflected on the fact such feelings are possibly not a bad indication of just how things have turned around at Easter Road in the intervening months.