Hibs’ Championship title hopes were left hanging by a thread after Morton ran them ragged, inflicting a first home league defeat on the Easter Road side since last April.
Little could the Capital club’s fans have envisaged a three-goal hammering by the Greenock outfit after a bright start in which it looked as if it was only a matter of time before they got their noses in front.
And they should have done so when David Gray’s cross picked out Jason Cummings only for the striker to somehow head wide from three yards with the entire target gaping and Morton goalkeeper Derek Gaston stranded.
Jim Duffy’s side made the most of that let-off, defender Thomas O’Ware heading them in front before the interval and, after Hibs had loud claims for a penalty turned down when Anthony Stokes appeared to have been brought down by Ross Forbes, they stunned their hosts with two more goals.
Denny Johnstone was on hand to turn the ball home after Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley could only finger-tip a Declan McManus cross into his path before Bobby Barr’s cutback found Forbes, who rattled home a third – no more than Morton deserved given an abject performance from Alan Stubbs’ players which leaves them trailing Rangers by eight points with only 11 matches left.
Stubbs may have insisted he was no “tinkerman” after making seven changes for the weekend win over Alloa Athletic, but there were as many made to his starting line-up as Hibs sought to make their game in hand over leaders Rangers count.
Gray, John McGinn, Darren McGregor, Anthony Stokes, Kevin Thomson and Cummings, who had all been on the bench for that one, were back in as was Lewis Stevenson, the left back returning after a one-match ban to make his 300th appearance for the Capital club, an occasion marked by him being made captain for the night.
Farid El Alagui made a rare appearance as a substitute, his recovery from a ruptured achilles tendon having been a long and painful process, but again underlining the strength in depth of Stubbs’ squad with Martin Boyle and Dan Carmichael – the goalscorers against the Wasps – not involved.
Celtic assistant manager John Collins was on hand to check on the Glasgow club’s on-loan players, Stokes and Liam Henderson, and he’d immediately have been taken by the enterprise of the Republic of Ireland striker, an attempted chip held above his head by Morton goalkeeper Gaston, a vicious drive from 25 yards which screamed inches over and then a header from Henderson’s corner which flew into the side-netting.
A Cummings attempt from another Henderson corner crashed off Morton defender Mark Russell, stationed on the near post, and spun into the arms of Gaston, who got lucky a few minutes later when the striker’s downward header from Gray’s cross crashed off the goalkeeper’s legs.
Morton, though, had shown why they’ve been picking up decent results, O’Ware meeting Joe McKee’s corner to power in a header which had Hibs keeper Oxley throwing himself down low to his right to push the ball aside.
McGinn did have the ball in the net but was adjudged offside before Hibs’ top scorer Cummings should have added to his 20 goals for the season by putting Hibs ahead in the 27th minute. Henderson’s superb pass inside Russell presented Gray with the opportunity to whip in a cross which picked out the blond head of his team-mate who, with the entire target to aim at, nodded wide from just three yards out.
Morton may have found themselves under pressure at times but Duffy’s side were comfortable in possession, patiently knocking the ball about in a bid to make the most of what they did have and Forbes again tested Oxley, firing in a shot which dipped wickedly in front of the goalkeeper, who grabbed it at the second attempt.
And the Greenock side stunned the home fans by taking the lead in the 36th minute with the simplest of goals. O’Ware, as he had done earlier, finding the space to get on the end of Forbes’ corner to head home from close range.
Inverness Caley boss John Hughes, present to watch his old side before before they meet the Highland outfit in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup on March 6, would no doubt have noted the vulnerability displayed at those two corners which had provided O’Ware with those goalscoring opportunities.
O’Ware’s goal had done Morton’s confidence no harm at all and, as Stubbs’ players struggled to find their rhythm, Declan McManus tested Oxley with a fierce shot which the goalkeeper was forced to beat away.
Hibs needed to up the tempo in the second half and they almost hauled themselves level within four minutes of the restart, Cummings thumping a shot which crashed back off the underside of the bar. Stokes, who had gone quiet after that impressive start, went for the rebound but appeared to be brought down by Forbes but referee Greg Aitken wasn’t interested.
Rather than find themselves on equal terms, Hibs found themselves two down. McManus delivered a dangerous low cross which tempted Oxley to go for it. But he could only get his finger tips to it, pushed the ball into the path of Johnstone, who had the easiest of tasks to knock it home from four yards out.
Hibs had left themselves with a mountain to climb if their Championship title hopes were to remain alive and Stubbs was left with no alternative but to remove Thomson, the “sitting” midfielder, and replace him with another striker in Keatings.
But it was a move which was in vain as Morton ensured victory with a third goal in the 64th minute, Barr’s cutback met by Forbes, who hammered it home.
After that bright start, Hibs had simply lost all composure and patience as they desperately sought the goal which might throw them an unlikely lifeline, the punishing schedule of matches which they had endured as they fought on three fronts appearing to finally take its toll despite Stubbs making full use of the squad he has amassed.
Three goals to the good, Morton were happy to drop back, defend and await the opportunity to hit on the break, a solid wall of yellow jerseys confronting their opponents and frustrating their attempts to engineer a clear look at Gaston.
McManus almost rubbed it in seven minutes from time when, having broken through Liam Fontaine’s tackle, he somehow managed to blaze the ball over with the goal gaping.
Eight days previously, Stubbs’ players had drank in the heady atmosphere of a Scottish Cup win over Hearts, enjoying a lap of honour to a rousing rendition of Sunshine on Leith. This time they made a rather more hasty exit, the jeers of their own fans ringing in their ears.
And they could have no cause for complaint.
Hibs (4-1-2-1-2): Oxley; Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson; Thomson (Keatings 59); McGeouch (Bartley 71), McGinn; Henderson; Cummings, Stokes (El Alagui 74). Unused subs: Virtanen, Hanlon, Gunnarsson, Dagnall
Morton (4-4-1-1): Gaston; Pepper (Lamie 56), Kilday, O’Ware, Russell; McMullan (McCluskey 73), McKee, Forbes, Barr (Quitongo 90); McManus, Johnstone. Unused subs: McNeil, Scullion, Tennent.
Referee: G Aitken.