ON the day when presents are traditionally doled out to the poor, this was a poor match to offer to the sparse crowd who were present.
Ross County: Brittain 57′
For Ross County, the quality of the fare was less important than the result which, including the Scottish Cup, gave them their first win in ten outings. For Hibs, the game was further evidence of a recent drop in standards which has now seen them take four points from 21.
Pat Fenlon’s team remain fourth in the table but five points behind the two clubs immediately above them and well adrift of Celtic, who visit Easter Road on Saturday.
Only the cup victory over Hearts at the start of this month has brought any cheer to Hibs of late and the optimism which that victory engendered has long since evaporated.
The one encouraging aspect of the game for the home manager was the fact that he was back to his first-choice line-up for the first time in a couple of months, with Tim Clancy returning to the defence alongside James McPake and Gary Deegan making his first home start since coming back from a broken jaw. The trio played no more than adequately but Fenlon has to hope that, when they have had a few games together, they will help their team rediscover the early-season form that at the moment feels like a distant memory.
Hibs had several chances to score after falling behind to a
Richard Brittain header but Mark Brown was rarely tested seriously. For most of the time the ball got nowhere near the goalkeeper, as County manager Derek Adams’ 4-5-1 system shut down Hibs’ creative players,
That formation left ex-Hearts striker Gary Glen with a lot to do up front but it did ensure that the Dingwall club more than held their own in the middle of the park. Fifteen minutes were played before either team had a shot on goal and, when the first effort came, from Clancy, it was woefully off-target.
Knowing they would get bogged down if they played the ball too centrally, Hibs tried to build attacks through David Wotherspoon on the right and Paul Cairney on the left, with Ryan McGivern getting up to support the latter.
The visitors’ defence coped calmly with anything which got past their midfield, at least from open play. It was a different matter, however, when Hibs won two corners in quick succession midway through the half. The first, from the left, was put straight out but, when Leigh Griffiths delivered the second from the right, County allowed McPake too much space. Had the Hibs captain got his timing right the ball would have ended up in the back of the net but, instead, making contact slightly late, he glanced it past the near post.
The last chance of the half also fell to Hibs but, again, it came to nothing. Opting for a change from the straightforward ball into the box, Wotherspoon rolled a free-kick on the right inside to Cairney, but his shot sailed well wide of the far post.
Adams was forced to make a change in the opening minutes of the second half when Stuart Kettlewell went down unchallenged with a hamstring pull that could keep him out for more than a month. He was stretchered off and replaced by Paul Lawson.
The half had begun as tamely
as the first 45 minutes had ended, but that changed in the 57th minute when County took the lead. Picking up possession some 30 yards out, Iain Vigurs sent what looked like no more than a speculative chip into the box, only for Brittain to shock Ben Williams in the Hibs goal and the home crowd by connecting with a looping header into the left corner of the net.
Fenlon responded with a double substitution in midfield, and a game which had, if anything, been too polite then threatened to get too heated, as referee John Beaton felt obliged to book four men in as many minutes. Mihael Kovacevic was first, followed by Hibs trio Cairney, Clancy and McPake. Deegan had been the only player booked in the first half, while Scott Boyd had
followed just before the goal.
Sensing that calming things down was his team’s best chance of holding on to their lead and keeping 11 men on the park, Adams brought Ross Tokely on for Kovacevic with 20 minutes remaining. Before the veteran defender had got a touch, Hibs should have been level, but Eoin Doyle could do no better than send a header over the crossbar from a good McGivern cross.
The pressure was increasing on County and Jorge Claros was on target with a shot from outside the box which Brown turned round for a corner. If the ex-Hibs keeper did well enough there, he was fortunate a minute later when he spilled a Griffiths shot into the path of Doyle. The Irishman instantly had the ball in the net,but was deemed to be offside.
Another excellent cross by McGivern then found Griffiths, but the striker could only nod the ball straight into Brown’s arms. With time running out for Hibs, striker Shefki Kuqi came on for Clancy and the line-up switched to 3-4-3.
The burly Finnish veteran barely got a touch, and Hibs’ last chance vanished when Brown saved a McGivern shot.
02 Clancy (Kuqi - 86’ )
20 Taiwo (Claros - 62’ )
05 Boyd Booked
22 Kovacevic (Tokely - 70’ )
07 Kettlewell (Lawson - 48’ )
20 Glen (Morrow - 75’ )