The goals finally came for Hibs – in the nick of time. Three in the final 12 minutes, to prevent a fourth defeat in five matches, and just enough to squeeze by Dumbarton and into the third round of the League Cup.
Head coach Alan Stubbs had insisted it was only a matter of time until the goals began to flow, and for his side to get the rewards their performances merited but had yet eluded them in games against Rangers, Hearts and Falkirk.
But even he must have been despairing as the minutes began to disappear with Hibs trailing to goals from Mitch Megginson and Mark Gilhaney, leaving Stubbs once more facing the task of trying to explain how his players had again dominated a match and created enough chances to win, but had yet failed to do so.
It’s become a familiar theme in the former Everton and Celtic defender’s budding managerial career, Stubbs claiming prior to this match he could quite easily have been sitting talking of four straight wins rather than dissecting defeats in three of those games.
He was only spared the need to do so thanks to a stunning and quite remarkable finale in which Farid El Alagui notched two towering headers in the space of six minutes, leaving substitute Sam Stanton to claim a last-gasp winner with a truly stunning strike which zipped across Dumbarton goalkeeper Danny Rodgers and into the far corner of his net.
It was a finish which left the part-timers from the west on their knees, Ian Murray’s players – most of whom had reported for duty straight from their day jobs – having given their all and then some, only to come up agonisingly short.
“Another two or three minutes was all we needed,” claimed the former Hibs skipper. “If we’d got to the 80th or 81st minute without losing a goal we’d probably have won the game.”
Murray was probably right but in Stubbs’ estimation it was his players refusal to panic which proved decisive, the Easter Road boss saying: “Even at 2-0 down I thought they still looked to do the right things.
“Players sometimes can get really nervous and start to make the wrong decisions, to get rid of the ball, to kick it up the field. But I thought we still showed an intelligence to try to keep playing, to keep probing.”
As happy as he was to have watched his players circumvent a potentially confidence-sapping reverse, Stubbs must, yet again, have been wondering just how they’d contrived to find themselves in that seemingly hopeless situation.
They’d dominated throughout the first half as they had done against Falkirk at the weekend and once more created chance after chance without giving Rodgers the sort of tough examination he’d have been expecting.
It looked only a matter of time before Hibs would break the deadlock but, as had proved to be the case in previous matches, that profligacy in front of goal left them vulnerable to being hit by a sucker punch.
Scott Robertson slashed over from a tight angle and Danny Handling headed over before Rodgers was tested for the first time, as he beat away a low shot from El Alagui at his near post.
New boy Liam Fontaine, making his debut only hours after clinching a one-year deal, succumbed to Hibs’ failings in front of goal, heading wide from an Alex Harris corner, the winger then rippling the side-netting when he should really have been hitting the target.
Stubbs said: “I thought we got into some really good positions but the final ball let us down, we hit the first man too many times.”
As always when a side is struggling to score they find themselves vulnerable – a scenario which blighted last season for Hibs – and so it proved, Megginson the first to react to Colin Nish’s knockdown from Scott Agnew’s corner to hook the ball home.
Dumbarton’s second came from the same source, this time Hibs failing to clear Agnew’s cross. Gary Fleming was first to it and when his shot was blocked there was Gilhaney to drill it goalwards, the ball just crossing the line before goalkeeper Mark Oxley could grab hold of it.
Stubbs, naturally, was less than pleased. Noting Rory Loy’s winner for Falkirk only a few days earlier had also come from a corner – again on the right – he said: “We never looked under any threat but we do not deal with two set pieces.
“We’ve got to be stronger, simple as that. I’m not prepared to give stupid, stupid goals away no matter who we are playing against. We will work on it, we need to be stronger physically to deal with it.
“I’ve spoken to the lads because we can’t afford to give teams one goal of a start, never mind two, and expect to win.”
Those goals did, though, bring a greater degree of urgency to Hibs’ play, Jason Cummings bringing a first meaningful save from Rodgers, who tipped his long-range effort over before gathering a powerful Matty Kennedy effort at the second attempt.
Scott Allan, Stanton and Kennedy blasted shots high and wide as Hibs desperately sought a way back into the match which finally came when El Alagui rose to glance David Gray’s cross beyond Rodgers, who was left just as helpless as the hitman powered another header past him a few minutes later.
Stubbs said: “It was just a matter of us getting one and seeing if they would wobble and when you look at the result I think the answer is there.”
Other than the final outcome, Murray, returning to Easter Road for the first time as a manager, had few complaints about his team’s performance. “I’m very proud,” he declared, “Their work-rate and application was impeccable.
“People forget we were at Ibrox on Saturday, that the boys had worked all day and we hadn’t seen each other until ten to seven and then they go and give me a performance like that.
“I’m gutted for them but the flip side is I am extremely proud of them.”