Hibs face a nerve-shredding final-day battle against Kilmarnock to avoid being dragged into the Scottish Premiership relegation play-off spot after passing up the chance to secure their place in the top flight.
Sam Stanton’s last-gasp equaliser against Partick Thistle on Saturday had left Terry Butcher’s side just one victory away from safety, but they were unable to grasp that lifeline, losing for the first time in four clashes with Ross County.
A Richie Brittain penalty following Scott Robertson’s clumsy challenge on Jordan Slew 17 minutes into the second half was enough to leave County celebrating, their place in the top flight assured while Butcher’s players will be anxiously awaiting the outcome of tonight’s matches to see exactly where they stand ahead of the visit of Killie on Saturday.
In a high-octane match, high on energy and effort but lacking in finesse, as was expected from such a match, Hibs had the jittery Staggies by the throat in the opening 15 minutes, but once again were unable to make that early pressure count.
Even so, neither side looked to have a goal in them – although County’s Yoann Arquin did send a towering header off the woodwork – until Robertson’s barge on Slew gave Brittain the chance to hammer home from the spot.
Hibs threw everything at the Dingwall outfit and created plenty of half-chances, but nothing clear-cut enough to put their former goalkeeper Mark Brown in too much danger and, given the Capital outfit have now won just once in their last 17 league games, it will surprise few that their battle to avoid that dreaded play-off spot has gone down to the wire.
Once again injury and suspension had forced Butcher into changing his starting line-up. Jordon Forster, having served his own one-match ban, partnered Ryan McGivern in central defence in the absence of Michael Jones, while Danny Handling, scorer of the Scottish Cup winner against the Staggies, replaced Kevin Thomson, who was ruled out with a thigh strain.
Butcher had implored his players to make the most of the long journey to Dingwall by clocking up their third successive victory at a venue which, until last November, had been of a bogey ground for Hibs, a win which would secure their Scottish Premiership status.
County, on the other hand, knew defeat would leave them facing a very nervy trip to Partick Thistle on the final day of the season and that anxiety was obvious from the opening minute when Filip Kiss, under no pressure whatsoever, conceded an entirely needless corner which, luckily for him, came to nothing.
Yann Songo’o looked equally jittery as he gifted possession to Handling who quickly delivered the ball into the path of Jason Cummings who stung the hands of Brown.
Butcher would have been happy with the spirited start but he would also be equally aware that, all too often in the past, such beginnings had given way to Hibs losing their way when they had failed to turn such early pressure into goals.
Having managed to quell that early fire, County set about trying to test Hibs’ resolve, the height and strength of Slew and Arquin making them the obvious targets for the pinpoint delivery of Brittain.
A succession of corners allowed the Staggies captain to test the Easter Road defence, a swinging cross beyond the back post finding Slew whose his shot was blocked by Liam Craig.
As the game continued to be played at a furious pace, Hibs adopted a shoot-on-sight policy, Handling, Cummings, Craig and even Alan Maybury all firing wide before Alex Harris’s free kick found the head of Robertson who couldn’t find the far corner of the net, the ball creeping inches wide with Brown flat-footed.
Arquin and Slew had won plenty in the air without causing Hibs too many problems but with half-time beckoning the former almost put the Dingwall outfit in front, rising to meet another accurate Brittain free kick to send in an arcing header which crashed back off the woodwork.
A narrow escape, but Derek Adams’ side had one of their own, Craig powering in to meet Harris’s corner only to send the ball over. Then, the slightly-built winger appeared to catch Scott Boyd out with his pace, but the defender used his greater upper-body strength to ease the youngster out of possession.
The frenetic pace continued unabated after the interval, with plenty of effort and desire from both sides, but lacking in quality as you might expect in a game gripped by a tension which intensified with every passing minute.
Ben Williams did well to hold a powerful header by Brittain and, at the other end, Brown had no trouble in taking Sam Stanton’s long-range strike, although neither goalkeeper had been overworked, the ball spending much of the time in the air as it was battered back and forth.
Hibs had looked good in that opening quarter of an hour when they had kept the ball on the deck, the aerial stuff clearly favouring the home side who were more than capable of outmuscling the youngsters in the Capital team.
A mistake rather than a piece of genius looked more likely to win this scrappy affair and that was what gave County the lead, Robertson clumsily barging into the back of Slew just inside the penalty area. Referee John Beaton immediately pointed to the spot and County captain Brittain confidently slammed the ball beyond Williams.
Slew was presented with an opportunity to put the game beyond Hibs, evading Forster as he dived in, but Williams managed to smother his low shot. Then Cummings did well to hold the ball up before delivering an effort which rolled across the face of goal and just wide.
Now it was Hibs’ turn to look a bag of nerves, the clock ticking down and the Premiership’s lowest scorers desperate to find a goal from somewhere, anywhere to give them a three-point cushion over 11th placed Kilmarnock ahead of the Ayrshire club’s clash with St Mirren at Rugby Park tonight, with the hope the Buddies can do them a favour.
Duncan Watmore and James Collins were thrown on in a bid to conjure up that moment, but County simply strung two banks of four across the back and looked to hit on the counter attack as Hibs gambled on throwing bodies forward,
Stanton’s late equaliser against Partick Thistle at the weekend had breathed new life into Hibs’ bid to escape the play-off position and Cummings should have engineered another great escape when he got on the end of Maybury’s fantastic deep cross, only to head the ball wide with the target gaping. Collins also went agonisingly close, meeting Craig’s cross but nodding wide.
It had been that sort of game for Hibs, numerous half-chances but again their lack of firepower proved to be their undoing and even four minutes of added time were of no help.
Now Partick and Killie have every incentive going into their matches against Hearts and St Mirren respectively, each knowing victory will put them above Hibs and so pile on the pressure ahead of the final round of matches.