Old habits die hard. If anyone thought Hibs’ impressive start to the Championship season – five straight wins – meant the all too evident shortcomings of past years could be buried deep in the memory, then think again.
As Neil Lennon’s side went into this match, all the talk was of the Easter Road side re-writing the history books by becoming the first ever to win their opening six league matches, with some even daring to speculate on Hibs negotiating the entire season unbeaten.
Lennon himself had cautioned against such over-optimistic chatter, but even he would have been somewhat surprised that the first setback would come against Championship newcomers Ayr United, at home and in front of yet another bumper turn-out of 15,056.
Three points were there for the taking but, sadly, the frailties of old were all too evident, an inability to turn overwhelming dominance – 63 per cent of possession, a statistic which probably only dropped as the game took a dramatic swing in Ayr’s favour – into an unassailable lead.
It was a familiar, if depressing, scenario – 14 shots, eight of which were on target, and yet only one goal, inevitably from that left boot of top scorer Jason Cummings, who has now contributed two thirds of Hibs’ strikes in the league.
As memorable as his latest was – a stunning curling effort from all of 30 yards which left Ayr goalkeeper Greg Fleming helpless as it found the postage stamp corner of his net – ultimately it counted for nought.
A flash of brilliance and something to behold it might have been but, as Lennon has already identified, his side often lack that predatory touch, unable when having opposition teams at their mercy to deliver the killer thrust.
Only 59 goals from 36 league games last season was, as the new boss rightly pointed out, a poor return and although that ratio is slightly better this time round, there remains a distinct deficiency in front of goal.
“We should be more ruthless,” admitted Lennon, “We need to be more cynical in front of goal, whatever you want to call it, composure.
“We should be winning games more comfortably – or we should be so far ahead. We lash at things from time to time, cut across things and hit the first man too many times.”
That was a reference to miserable deliveries from either flank, skipper David Gray’s cross in the second minute which was met by a powerful downward, point-blank, header from Grant Holt, who was later to see a close-range effort strike the post, which Fleming somehow managed to send spiralling up over his bar, the only such moment worthy of recall.
Nevertheless, Cummings’ eighth goal of the season should have been enough to win it for Hibs – that was until midfield enforcer Marvin Bartley was sent off.
Surrounded by four Ayr players, he lunged at the ball with a challenge which referee Nick Walsh deemed worthy of a red card, the official having no hesitation in going for his top pocket, much to the ire of Bartley and the home support.
“The red card changed the game,” claimed Lennon. “But I am not convinced it was a red card. He’s gone in low, he might have caught the boy, but there’s no real malice in the tackle.
“There were more cynical things going on that went unpunished, so a red card was really harsh, to say the least.
“It looked pretty innocuous from where I was. It was not two-footed, so I’d like to hear the referee’s interpretation.”
Ayr boss Ian McCall, while claiming not to have seen the incident, revealed Adams leg was “horrendous”, indicating an area between ankle and knee.
However, regardless of Walsh’s call, Hibs would have expected to see out the final 23 minutes only for their afternoon fall apart. A misplaced header from Paul Hanlon saw goalkeeper Ofir Marciano make little effort to prevent it going out for a needless corner, Brian Gilmour’s delivery met by the head of former Hearts kid Conrad Balatoni to claim what had appeared only a few minutes earlier to be the most unlikely of equalisers.
Lennon said: “We were in total control. What annoys me is that we conceded from a set play. That should not happen, we should be better than that.
“We’ve have had 50 corners against us this season and defended them pretty well so I am annoyed – really annoyed.
“It gave them a lifeline with an extra man.”
Ayr made the most of that numerical superiority, captain Nicky Devlin cutting the ball across for Gilmour to steer home a goal which, allied to Queen of the South’s victory over Raith Rovers, knocked them off the top of the table with a trip to Palmerston Park up next for Hibs.
Lennon, who revealed he’ll be studying Bartley’s challenge before deciding to launch an appeal, said: “It’s definitely worth having a look at. To me, it was fairly innocuous. However, we had to deal with them having the extra man a little bit better.
“However, we’ve had a brilliant start to the season – we have to dust ourselves down and go again.”
Unbeaten Queens will, though, present a formidable test of the resilience of Lennon’s players, the return of former Hibs striker Stephen Dobbie having sparked the Dumfries club into life.
Pointing out that the trip to Palmerston Park is followed by games against Dundee United and Raith Rovers, Lennon said: “The next three games are big. All these teams have been going well lately.
“This was a setback – if you want to call it that – but it’s not the end of the world.
“We’ll analyse the game in the cold light of day.
“There are things we can do better but, in the main, we have done pretty well. We lost this game, but I’m not going to be too critical of the players.”
Even McCall, who’d seen his side win a league game at Easter Road for the first time since 1978, readily conceded he couldn’t have seen the final outcome of this match coming, although he underlined Lennon’s contention that Hibs need to be able to put opposition sides to the sword by saying: “I don’t think they cut us open that much.
“Fleming has had an unbelievable save after two minutes which kept us in it, and then they scored a wonder goal. We took our chances and for us to come here and win is just fantastic.”
That was the difference. Ayr had two clear cut opportunities, and took both. Hibs didn’t.