Hibs suffered another Hampden heartbreak as a last-minute goal from Alex Schalk won the League Cup for Ross County.
The Easter Road side dominated much of the 90 minutes but found themselves trailing to a Michael Gardyne goal midway through the first half. Liam Fontaine pulled Hibs level on the stroke of half-time but, just as the final looked to be heading into extra time, Gardyne broke away to fire in a cross to which Fontaine got a foot only to knock it into the path of Schalk to win the Dingwall side the first major trophy in their short history.
The continuing loss through injury of Paul Hanlon, Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch was compensated to a degree by the availability of midfield enforcer Marvin Bartley and top scorer Jason Cummings following the suspensions which saw them miss the Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caley last week.
But Danny Handling was a surprise inclusion among the Hibs substitutes, the Scotland Under-21 midfielder having not featured since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in a pre-season match at Berwick Rangers one day short of eight months ago.
Cummings tested Gary Woods early on, the striker pouncing on a loose ball 25 yards out before powering in a shot with the outside of his left boot, forcing the Staggies goalkeeper to leap to touch the ball over. Woods was in action just seconds later, bravely diving on the ball after Fontaine had slid in on John McGinn’s low cross with Hibs skipper David Gray coming in on top of him.
The Dingwall outfit didn’t take much longer to create their own sense of danger, Darren McGregor forced to head Gardyne’s cross behind with Liam Boyce on his shoulder, the resultant corner from Ian McShane finding Martin Woods in plenty of space beyond the Hibs defence but the midfielder wasn’t able to control the ball and the chance was gone.
Cummings was only inches away from giving Hibs the lead in the 21st minute, the 20-year-old stretching for Gray’s inviting low cross as it zipped across the six-yard box but just unable to make contact.
The Edinburgh side, roared on by a 30,000-strong green-and-white army, were enjoying the bulk of possession in the early stages and a step-over by Anthony Stokes brought him into a shooting position but his effort went straight at Woods.
Those fans from the Capital, who outnumbered their rivals by some 4-1, were silenced in the 25th minute when Jackson Irvine played in Gardyne. Bartley put in a despairing tackle, the Staggies midfielder was able to ride it and, with goalkeeper Mark Oxley stranded, he was left with the easy task of rolling the ball into the empty net.
It was undoubtedly a setback for Hibs but they set about seeking an equaliser, Gray’s deep cross finding McGregor rising above everyone at the back post but the defender was unable to direct his header on target.
Then McGinn found Cummings running in behind County defender Paul Quinn only for Woods to get his fingertips to the youngster’s attempt to chip him from an acute angle.
But right on the stroke of half-time, Hibs hauled themselves level. Another Liam Henderson corner from the right was met with the merest of touches by Gray’s head, the ball falling between defenders for Fontaine to spin and crash an unstoppable shot into the net from ten yards, aided by the slightest of deflections off County captain Andy Davies.
Hibs re-emerged revitalised and Stokes almost put them ahead eight minutes into the second half, the on-loan Celtic man taking Henderson’s pass with his back to goal before using the run of Lewis Stevenson as a decoy to turn and drill in a low shot which missed by inches.
Stubbs’ players were dominating the match but again County threatened on the break, Gardyne’s run unchecked before he off-loaded to Schalk,. McGregor coming in with a terrific covering tackle only to find the offside flag raised in any case.
Hibs, though, would probably have been a touch disappointed that for all their possession they’d been unable to create as many clear-cut chances as they’d have liked, both Fontaine and Stokes resorting to long-range efforts which failed to test Woods.
County boss Jim McIntyre had thrown on Brian Graham in the hope his more physical approach would produce a goal and Stubbs followed suit, James Keatings coming on for Kevin Thomson with 15 minutes remaining, a move which saw a slight change, Henderson moving to the right of midfield with the substitute playing at the tip of the diamond.
A push by Bartley, who had earlier been booked for putting an arm across the face of Graham, on Gardyne gave County an opportunity. Schalk’s free-kick forcing Oxley to dive low to his right to push the ball round the post and, from the resulting corner, Graham thought he’d scored what might have been the winning goal, rising high to nod the ball into the net only for referee Kevin Clancy to judge he’d been guilty of a foul on the Hibs goalkeeper.
But just as it looked as if extra time would be required, Gardyne raced down the left to deliver a cross which Fontaine got a foot to but only managed to knock the ball into the path of Schalk, who was almost on the line as he blasted it into the empty net.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson, Henderson, Bartley (Boyle 90), Thomson (Keatings 76), McGinn; Cummings, Stokes. Substitutes not used: Virtanen, El Alagui, Handling, Gunnarson, Dagnall.
Ross County: G Woods, Fraser, Quinn, Davies, Foster (Franks 85), McShane (Murdoch 79), M Woods, Irvine, Gardyne. Schalk, Boyce (Graham 59). Substitutes not used: Konopka, Boyd, Robertson, De Vita.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.