Jason Cummings went from saint to sinner, a stunning 20th goal of the season tightening Hibs’ grip on the Championship before two moments of madness in the space of three minutes saw him sent off.
Cummings’ 39th-minute strike pushed Neil Lennon’s side ten points clear of Dundee United in the race for the title with the Tannadice outfit themselves already down to ten men after Lewis Toshney was sent off for two crude challenges on Hibs midfielder Andrew Shinnie.
But the striker picked up a silly yellow card after letting his frustration get the better of him as he was ruled offside in the second half but that was nothing to the madness which followed, the 21-year-old clearly using a hand to divert David Gray’s cross into the net and, instead of celebrating a match-clinching second goal, he was getting first use of the showers in the away dressing-room.
And Lennon himself was sent to the stand as the game moved into added-on time having presumably spoken out of turn on the sidelines, the match having produced a remarkable ten yellow cards to add to those two reds.
With striker Grant Holt cleared to play after it was feared he had suffered concussion as he took that early whack from Ayr United defender Scott McKenna at the weekend, Lennon made just one change, Darren McGregor returning to the side following the one-match ban which caused him to miss the Scottish Cup win as Jordon Forster made way.
There was much at stake for both clubs with, arguably, the greater pressure on United knowing defeat would leave their title hopes hanging by the slimmest of threads while, at the same time, trying to keep Falkirk at bay in the fight for second place.
On the other hand, a defeat for Hibs wouldn’t be disastrous but, on the back of a run of just three points from their last four league matches, Lennon’s players were keen to avoid giving their rivals further hope as the season heads into the final straight.
There was certainly a nervous edge to Ray McKinnon’s players in the opening minutes, Paul Dixon slicing a deep free-kick from McGregor over – and lucky he wasn’t on target – before Mark Durnan was short with a passback, Cummings latching on to the ball but finding the angle against him as goalkeeper Cammy Bell saved.
As the home fans held up posters protesting against chairman Stephen Thomson, Hibs skipper Gray was forced into a trip on Simon Murray the United striker, taking him down only a yard outside the penalty area, an opportunity wasted as Scott Fraser blasted his free-kick into the defensive wall in front of him.
But United’s chances were dealt a major blow with 31 minutes on the clock, Toshney, who had already been booked for a late challenge on Shinnie, shown a second yellow card by referee Don Robertson for another bad foul on the Hibs midfielder. Toshney, just back from a hamstring injury, could have no complaints, Robertson having taken a lenient view of an earlier reckless lunge at Shinnie before delivering those two bookings in the space of just 14 minutes.
And it took Hibs just eight minutes to capitalise on their numerical superiority, Holt flicking the ball on for Shinnie, who dinked it forward for Cummings who took it down and smashed a fantastic left-foot volley past the helpless Bell.
Sadly, one idiot hadn’t taken heed of the warning from Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster only a few days earlier as to possible consequences of using pyrotechnics, the haze of a green smoke bomb drifting the length of the pitch from The Shed housing some of the 2500 fans who had travelled from the Capital.
Cummings felt he was due a penalty as he went down under the challenge of William Edjenguele, heading for the tunnel at half-time arguing the odds with referee Robertson, who had taken a different slant on the incident.
It had been a composed and assured first half from Hibs, who had taken control of the game from the opening minutes and had hardly given United anything although, obviously, Lennon would undoubtedly want the cushion of a second goal, aware that clean sheets have been something of rarity recently in the league.
The objective for the second 45 minutes would be to ensure that they didn’t allow the tempo of the game to slacken which would benefit their short-handed opponents while ensuring they didn’t allow any silly errors to creep in.
Holt and Edenguele were certainly getting to know each other well, the striker and defender enjoying several tussles before Robertson decided enough was enough, booking both as they wrestled together on the ground after another coming together.
It had, however, become rather scrappy, United determined not to lose that second goal which would signal that not only was this particular game over for them, but very much their hopes of ending the season as champions and with it an immediate return to the top flight.
For their part, there was no need for Hibs to force matters or take any risks but Martin Boyle passed up a glorious chance to put matters to rest as Holt’s flick from Gray’s cross found him all alone at the back post. The forward probably didn’t realise how much time he had, hurrying his shot high over the bar.
But Boyle almost turned provider seconds later, his low cutback picking out Shinnie, who found his netbound shot blocked by the legs of Durnan.
Referee Robertson was certainly being kept busy, Cummings making it eight yellow cards to add to Toshney’s red for stupidly hurling the ball to the turf after being caught offside, the Hibs striker compounding that craziness by using his hand to turn Gray’s cross into the net, earning himself an early bath just three minutes later.
Finding themselves back on level terms, at least as far as numbers went, gave United renewed hope for the remaining 15 minutes, reason to throw caution to the wind and try to salvage something from a game in which they hadn’t threatened Ofir Marciano’s goal.
But it took a terrific save from Bell to prevent Shinnie wrapping things up ten minutes from time, the goalkeeper standing tall to push the midfielder’s first-time effort from substitute Brian Graham’s head flick aside.
Nerves were jangling and Lennon found himself being sent to the stand as the game moved into four additions minutes, presumably for talking out of turn on the touchline.
But the Hibs boss would have been concerned little by his dismissal as the final whistle blew on an important three points for his side.
Dundee United: Bell; Van der Struijk, Durnan, Edjenguele, Dixon; Flood, Toshney; Fraser (Van der Velden 84), Andreu (Mikkelson 62), Nicholls; Murray. Unused subs: Zwick, Dillon, Telfer, Robson, Murdoch.
Hibs: Marciano; Gray, McGregor, Ambrose, Stevenson; Bartley (Fyvie 68); Boyle (Forster 87), McGinn; Shinnie; Cummings, Holt (Graham 80). Unused subs: Laidlaw, Keatings, Crane, Martin.
Referee: Don Robertson