EVIDENCE that the bar had been raised under John Collins came when the new Hibs manager gave an uncharacteristically stern verdict on his side’s laboured victory over Dundee United.
Collins explained that while the three points were not to be sniffed at against dogged opponents, the performance had fallen way short of what Tommy Craig and himself demanded from their players.
Hibs never came close to matching the frenetic energy levels of their previous draw with Celtic and when they fell behind in the 24th minute, they looked set for a fruitless afternoon. The only chance of note the home team had mustered up until that point was when Ivan Sproule turned Christian Kalvenes inside out and fizzed the ball across the face of the goal too hard for Steven Fletcher, who failed to make clean contact at the back-post.
United, operating with 17-year-old David Goodwillie at centre forward in place of the injured Noel Hunt, and Craig Conway on the left wing, had already shown signs of giving the Hibs defence an uncomfortable shift, and from the latter’s cross, Shelton Martis stretched for a header and looped it backwards over the stranded Zibi Malkowski, with lines of communication closed between the Dutchman and Pole, who blamed each other for the goal.
United’s aggression and self-belief had soared under their own new manager, Craig Levein, and they continued to take the game to Hibs.
Goodwillie saw a low shot saved by Malkowski, then curled an effort high and wide after a piercing run by the rejuvenated Barry Robson.
Conway also had a chance to double the advantage, seizing on an error by Steven Whittaker but failing to squeeze the ball past Malkowski.
Collins’ side were toiling, but they found a way back into the game in the final minute of the first half when Steve Conroy awarded Hibs a foul wide on the right after Ivan Sproule’s jersey was tugged.
Kevin Thomson, who had been struggling in the aftermath of a sixth-minute knock and would go on to be replaced by Michael Stewart at half-time, swung the ball in left-footed, and Chris Killen’s tidy head-flick found the in-rushing Rob Jones, who planted the ball firmly past Derek Stillie.
Buoyed by scoring the equaliser at such an opportune moment, Hibs were able to crank up their second-half performance enough to wear down a spirited United.
The winner arrived with 16 minutes left. Whittaker thumped the ball from the right touchline to the edge of the box where Fletcher nodded the ball into Abdessalam Benjelloun. The Moroccan was bundled over, but Fletcher seized on the loose ball and rifled home into the far corner from 12 yards out.
Hibs: Malkowski, Whittaker, Murphy, Martis, Jones, Thomson, Sproule, Beuzelin, Brown, Fletcher, Killen.