Reinvigorated by the winter break. Batteries recharged. Full of zest and raring to go. Dundee most certainly were. Hibs, on the other hand, were slow, sloppy and lethargic, sleepwalking their way into a match which the Easter Road fans had hoped would signal a renewed charge towards second place.
It took a wake-up call from boss Pat Fenlon to finally get his players to shake themselves from their slumbers but by that point the Edinburgh club were already a goal down and, if truth be told, lucky not to find themselves trailing the SPL’s basement outfit by more.
The Dark Blues had stunned Fenlon’s side at Dens Park in November, the 3-1 win that day their last as they’ve found themselves falling further and further adrift of the rest, their plight not helped by Ross County’s thumping 4-1 victory over St Mirren only an hour or so earlier.
Dundee’s last visit to Easter Road, though, had seen them crushed 3-0, leading many to believe Barry Smith’s men would adopt a cautious approach, happy to sit in and make life difficult for Hibs who always find the going tough when the opposition set out to frustrate, and look to hit on the break.
Instead, the Tayside outfit went for it right from the start, former Hibs striker Colin Nish spearheading an attack which contained three more forwards in Steven Milne, Mark Stewart and John Baird, the quartet combining to carve open Hibs’ defence and allow the latter to score after only eight minutes.
Goalkeeper Ben Williams kept his side in it, pulling off a point-blank save from Milne after Nish, who caused his old team-mates no end of trouble throughout the 90 minutes, had created the opening. Nish saw an audacious chip drift just wide before Stewart ballooned a glorious chance to double Dundee’s lead before the interval.
All Hibs had to offer in return were a couple of weak efforts from Eoin Doyle which went tamely into the arms of Rab Douglas, a Tim Clancy header well off target and a Leigh Griffiths’ shot which spun yards wide.
“We never got started,” conceded Fenlon, “We were lethargic, Dundee started better but we weren’t as focused as we had been in our last two games which we’d started really well.
“We didn’t start on the front foot, from the first pass we had we were sloppy, too loose and had no real tempo.”
Fenlon appeared to have sorted that out with his half-time pep talk, a careless push by youngster Declan Gallagher offering Griffiths the opportunity to curl a trademark free-kick beyond Douglas, his 15th SPL goal of the season and also maintaining his record of having scored against his old club every time he’s come up against them in a green and white shirt.
Coming as it did just four minutes after the break, it lifted flagging spirits around the Easter Road stands, team-mate Clancy admitting: “We’d been sloppy in the first half, we didn’t start the game quickly enough, the tempo just wasn’t there. The gaffer got us in at half-time, calmed us down and had a few words, constructive criticism of certain things.
“I thought we were a lot better in the second half and when Leigh scored I thought we were going to go on and win the game but we couldn’t get that final ball. We took that extra pass when we should probably have had a shot.
“We didn’t create enough for Sparky and Eoin, it was just frustrating. In the second half we had a lot of pressure and crosses and could have had all three points.”
Dundee, though, were equally justified in making a similar claim, Hibs failing, as Clancy observed, to overwork Douglas while Williams pulled off two notable saves within the space of a couple of minutes to ensure a point, denying Milne at his near post and then leaving Nish disappointed as he came out best in a one-on-one situation.
While delighted to see Williams in top form, Fenlon admitted he was less than happy the signing from Colchester United should have been so busy. He said: “Ben pulled off some great saves but he has done that all season. However, we shouldn’t really have to rely on him at home as much as we did to be honest.”
Dundee manager Smith was clearly the happier of the two bosses and although the draw leaves his side now 11 points off the pace, he remains convinced there’s plenty of reason for hope.
He said: “I thought it was an excellent performance away from home. We showed all the commitment we’ve had in previous weeks but also a bit of quality. It was a great goal in terms of passing and our strikers working together to get the finish.
“We were positive, we played with a lot of forward thinking players and I think it worked. We created chances in the first half and the second. We could have won, but I am happy with the performance. We’ve come to a difficult place and shown how far we have come as we were turned over 3-0 here but now we’ve come away with a point which has to be positive.”
Fenlon reflected that given Dundee’s position they could take a more adventurous approach than might otherwise be the case, saying: “When you look at it there’s not too much more to lose, it’s a case of having a go for it but you have to give them great credit for that. They could have come here and sat in but they didn’t do that, they came and created plenty of chances.”
Both Fenlon and Clancy mirrored the disappointment of everyone at Easter Road at the outcome although, on the positive side, the point taken means Hibs have now matched their entire total for last season. It will, however, be viewed as very much another two points dropped with Hibs, having been out on their own in second place not so long ago now finding themselves slipping further and further behind Inverness Caley and Motherwell who now jointly occupy that position.
While Hibs looked distinctly rusty for that opening 45 minutes, Clancy insisted the two week break couldn’t be used as an excuse although it came immediately after that impressive win over Celtic and a battling point at Tynecastle.
He said: “We’d come off two massive games but it wasn’t that our attitude or mentality was not right. I wouldn’t say the break came at the wrong time, everyone has had a break so you can’t pin it on that.