It just had to be him, didn’t it? Ivan Sproule, the man who hardly got a look in at Easter Road over the past five months, came back to haunt his old club as Ross County defeated Hibs for the third time this season.
The flying winger’s fleet of footness was the difference between the sides, the 31-year-old showing his former team-mates a clean pair of heels as he raced on to Ian Vigur’s through ball before rounding goalkeeper Ben Williams to coolly slot home his third goal in as many matches for his new employers.
Sproule’s boss, one-time Hibs assistant manager Derek Adams, said: “Ivan was desperate to show Hibs what they were missing and he certainly did that by scoring the winning goal.
“That’s three goals and an assist so he has been a good signing for us.”
Pat Fenlon, who was forced to reluctantly agree to Sproule’s request to have the remainder of his Easter Road contract torn up as he became increasingly frustrated at not figuring as much as he’d like, was forced to adopt a philosophical stance, observing: “That’s football,that’s the way things go.”
The Staggies had inflicted plenty of pain on Hibs in the past, twice coming from behind to force a replay before knocking John Hughes’ side out of the Scottish Cup three years ago and, as SPL newcomers, this season winning home and away to boast three wins in four matches against the Capital outfit.
Each of those, though, was by the margin of a single goal, suggesting another tight affair was on the cards as, thanks to the vagaries of the fixture list, the clubs lined up against each other barely a month after their last encounter on Boxing Day at Easter Road.
And so it proved with Sproule’s first-half strike enough to separate the sides and ensure another night of suffering at the hands of Adams’ side for Fenlon and his players, the fact the fatal blow had been struck by “one of their own” making the defeat all the tougher to take.
Hibs had been buoyed before kick-off with the news that Jorge Claros would be staying until the end of the season, the lengthy negotiations with Motagua, his parent club in Honduras, finally paying off. After sitting out the trip to Pittodrie after Fenlon reckoned the speculation regarding his future was playing with his head, Claros was recalled, joining new signing Scott Robertson in the middle of the park.
Few would have raised eyebrows at those decisions, but Fenlon sprang a surprise by handing 18-year-old Danny Handling a start, the move perhaps prompted by the fact the goals had somewhat dried up for his side in recent matches, just two scored in their previous four games although Hibs had remained unbeaten in those clashes with Celtic, Hearts, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Ross County, though, were the only side Hibs had failed to take a point from prior to kick-off, that fact a major reason why, while Adams’ team in tenth were six places behind their visitors, the gap was only nine points, one which has now been cut to six.
That was something which wasn’t lost on Adams, last night’s results meaning only nine points now separate second from 11th. He said: “It was another good win, it’s good to keep the momentum going. We are six points off Hibs, four off Aberdeen and with two games in hand. That’s what we talked about before the game.”
A wild, gusting wind whipped heavy rain across a pitch rendered unplayable twice within days over the Christmas period, but the five-figure sum spent by the Dingwall club on repairs and covers did the trick although conditions remained difficult with the area which had caused so many problems remaining heavily sanded.
Hibs tried to take that out of the equation by getting the ball down and they did play some neat, passing football without over-troubling County’s defence, the only threat a weak low shot from Leigh Griffiths, the striker opting to go it alone despite three team-mates having made lung-bursting runs from their own penalty area to the other end only to find they could just as easily have saved their breath.
Equally, County didn’t cause Williams too much bother although the goalkeeper was forced to race to the edge of his area, calmly taking a through ball and side-stepping Sproule as he showed that turn of pace which had so often thrilled the green-and-white army.
Having quit Hibs for a second time, frustrated at the lack of action under Fenlon, Sproule had insisted he was far from a spent force, that lightning-quick speed which had terrorised SPL defences throughout his first spell in a green-and-white jersey hadn’t deserted him despite his 31 years of age, a claim well justified as he turned on the after-burners to grab the opening goal.
Hibs skipper James McPake charged forward deep into County territory but possession was lost, Fenlon believing young Handling was fouled in the process. But play was allowed to go on, Ian Vigurs spotting Hibs were short-handed at the back and drilling an inviting ball for Sproule to outstrip his former team-mates before rounding Williams and slipping home his third goal in as many matches for his new club.
The fact it came in front of the small band of 312 Hibs fans who had made the midweek trip north rubbed salt into the wounds but, true to his word, Sproule showed no signs of celebrating as he was engulfed by his jubilant team-mates.
Hibs could reflect that they hardly deserved to be behind, but they’d done nothing themselves to suggest they might get a goal of their own with, again, Griffiths the main threat.
A long-range shot from the 15-goal striker went straight down the throat of County goalkeeper Mark Brown and the home side would have been happy to restrict him, Robertson and Gary Deegan to such efforts with Hibs lacking the ability to get down the flanks and in behind their defence or to be able to pass their way through them.
Although Hibs took a better grip of the game after the interval, County’s defenders would have felt as comfortable as the Aberdeen back four had in that goalless draw at the weekend with all the play in front of them.
Sproule’s evening came to a premature end, the Northern Ireland star damaging a hamstring with 20 minutes remaining, an injury which threatens to keep him out of the first of those games County have in hand, Saturday’s encounter with Hearts at the other end of the A9.
As time began to run out for Hibs, Fenlon threw on teenage hitman Ross Caldwell and then David Wotherspoon but to little effect.
As the match headed into five minutes of added-on time, Griffiths went down claiming a penalty, waved away by referee Bobby Madden as County held firm to clinch a hat-trick of wins over the Capital club.
Fenlon admitted: “I thought up to the goal we did all right, there was nothing in the game. But we did not create enough chances, we had enough of the ball but we lacked that bit of sharpness, that cutting edge.
“We had enough forward players on the pitch and we should be able to do that.”