Graham STACK was probably still scratching his head in bemusement today, trying to work out exactly how he managed to end up on the losing side.
Usually following a match against either side of the Old Firm there would be little to contemplate, the opposition goalkeeper invariably finding himself one of the busiest players on the park when confronting either Rangers or Celtic.
This time, however, the Hibs No. 1 probably enjoyed one of the quietest afternoons he’s ever had. Rarely did he touch the ball throughout the 90 minutes and yet he found himself picking it out of his net twice, beaten by a Nikica Jelavic penalty and then a bullet header from the Croat striker.
There was nothing Stack could do about either, the goalkeeper left helpless on both occasions, Jelavic’s strikes merely highlighting the fine line between victory and defeat, two shots on target producing the two goals which keep Rangers four points clear at the top of the SPL table.
The clinical nature of Jelavic’s finishes, though, also underlined the age-old maxim hammered into every player who goes searching for glory against Scotland’s big two: you must take your chances when they present themselves. And Hibs did have two glorious opportunities to score, one before and the other after Jelavic’s opener from the spot, Leigh Griffiths somehow steering a weak shot into the arms of Allan McGregor after Lee Wallace’s fresh air swipe at Ivan Sproule’s cut-back left him with the only clear-cut chance of a first half in which the two sides had more or less cancelled each other out.
Then Paul Hanlon powered in above everyone else to meet Sproule’s free-kick only to see his header zip over McGregor’s bar. Had either ended up in the net, Hibs’ new boss Pat Fenlon could well have been celebrating a precious point – or even all three – from his first match at Easter Road.
Rangers may be champions three years in a row and gunning for a fourth successive title, but Ally McCoist’s side are far from convincing at present, their lead at the top down from a yawning 15 points only a few weeks ago to just four with Celtic snapping at their heels having made it six wins in a row thanks to Victor Wanyama’s goal against Hearts.
Set pieces have gone a long way recently to keeping Rangers on top, their last goal in open play having come at the beginning of last month in their 3-1 win over Dundee United, since then own goals, penalties and, now, a corner have come to their rescue.
The fact it was set pieces which had led to Hibs’ downfall only added to Fenlon’s disappointment although there was a most definite feeling in the home dressingroom that they’d been hard done by when referee Iain Brines pointed to the spot when Michael Hart tangled with former Hearts star Wallace.
Brines had no doubt, his arm up in a split second as the visiting fans behind Stack roared for the award, but Hart, naturally, was less certain, claiming Wallace had made the most of the situation as the pair jostled for a spinning ball.
Admitting there had been contact but not enough to floor Wallace in the way he went to ground, claimed Hibs defender: “I think he [Wallace] played it well. I have got in front of him to get goal side and I don’t know if it was the spin on the ball or his touch but it went back beyond me. I have made contact but I found it hard to get his arms off me.
“It’s frustrating, as a defender you have to get yourself in there but when his arms are out you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. I have got hold of him but I didn’t think there was much contact for him to fall to the floor the way he did.”
Accepting it was a “soft” award, Hart also insisted the fact he was being closely questioned about the incident in the after-match press conference indicated a degree of dubiety about Brines’ decision.
He added: “I know I got hold of him but if he does not throw himself to the floor then I do not think he is getting the penalty but the referee has given it so you just have to get on with it.”
Harsh it might have been in the eyes of the home support, but it also served to turn the spotlight on Griffiths’ earlier miss as Easter Road stopper Sean O’Hanlon conceded. He said: “Sparky is a great finisher, he puts them away in training every day.
“Maybe he had too much time to think about it and unfortunately he has hit it straight at McGregor.
“I think their penalty was soft, I don’t think Michael has pushed him over.
“The pair of them were trying to shield the ball. He [Wallace] has been clever, had he stayed on his feet I don’t think he gets it. But he goes down and the Rangers fans are all screaming for the referee to give it.”
O’Hanlon agreed it was hard to see Rangers scoring otherwise, Ibrox boss Ally McCoist admitting the Scouser and his partner at the back David Stephens had defended superbly and, in his estimation, were Hibs’ best players.
Three minutes later Hanlon sent that header over and rather than being back on level terms, the game was over for Hibs shortly thereafter as Jelavic rose unopposed to head home Gregg Wylde’s corner for his 14th goal of the season.
Hanlon almost claimed a consolation goal when his cross deflected off Steven Whittaker, only for McGregor to quickly adjust his feet before clawing the ball out from under his bar.
Fenlon, however, insisted that in defeat there were plenty of positives he could take from the match. He said: “We probably had the two best chances of the match. If we could have scored just before half-time it would have put a little bit of pressure on Rangers.
“When you get chances against the big teams you really need to take them because they do not come along too often. But I felt the players really responded, they worked very hard, defensively we were really sound.”
O’Hanlon agreed saying: “I think the performance was definitely better and for most of the game we were the better team. Stacky hasn’t had a save to make all game but we’ve been beaten 2-0 and that’s disappointing.”