Neil Lennon had warned it would be near impossible for his players to replicate the stunning performance of a few days earlier as they’d sent arch-rivals Hearts crashing out of the Scottish Cup.
But, for 25 minutes, it looked as if they were about to confound their manager, the slow starts against Ayr United and Raith Rovers which had cost them precious points in their bid to extend an already healthy lead at the top of the Championship forgotten as they threatened to blow Dunfermline away just as they had the Jambos.
Within five minutes, Martin Boyle put them ahead, coming in at the back post to fire home Jason Cummings’ tempting cross before the Easter Road outfit’s top scorer took his tally for the season to 18 from the spot after his team-mate had been felled in the penalty area.
At that point, Dunfermline midfielder Kallum Higginbotham feared they were going to be on the end of a “doing”, a feeling probably shared by almost everyone else inside Easter Road.
However, rather than opt for a damage-limitation exercise as most would have done given the situation they were in, Allan Johnston’s side had a go, rewarded as David Gray gifted them a lifeline only moments after Cummings’ penalty, the Hibs skipper taking a fresh air swipe at Nicky Clark’s through ball, allowing Paul McMullan to run through and slot a low shot beyond Ofir Marciano.
Admitting that goal was “a blessing”, Higginbotham said: “You’re thinking that you come here and shut up shop for twenty minutes, but we lost the first one after five minutes. We got a goal soon after they scored their second and, for the rest of the first half, I thought we were on top and we were miles better in the second half.”
Higginbotham himself hauled the Pars level less than a minute after the interval, driving home a looping cross from Michael Moffat and, if truth be told, the Fife club were unlucky not to go on to claim all three points, Marciano pulling off a stunning double save from Moffat and Clark before using his feet to keep out Clark’s downward header.
“I was delighted with my finish and it came at a great time as well,” said Higginbotham. “It gave us the kick we needed at the beginning of the second half. At two-nil down you would have taken a point but when we got back level we had three or four great chances.
“Their keeper has had a fantastic game and we’re disappointed that we’ve not won.”
The loss of centre-back Liam Fontaine before the interval with an ankle injury didn’t help Hibs’ cause, midfielder Marvin Bartley drafted in to play alongside Darren McGregor before he adopted a more familiar role as 20-year-old Callum Crane made his league debut as Lennon shuffled the pack in a bid to re-assert a grip on the game.
And Lennon admitted he was at a loss to understand why Higginbotham, booked after a flare-up with Fraser Fyvie on the stroke of half-time, wasn’t sent off for going in late on midfielder Andrew Shinnie.
The Hibs boss said: “I’m not one to try and get people sent off, but you tell me how Higginbotham stays on. He’s on a booking and he’s lunged into Shinnie. I asked John [Beaton, the referee] about it and he said he didn’t think the contact was enough, which is fine, but it looked like a second yellow to me.”
Higginbotham admitted he’d seen yellow cards brandished for such challenges but insisted he was unlucky to have been booked in the first place. He said: “I’ve not touched the boy. He’s done me from behind and I jump up.
“I’m not a player that’s going to be rolling about the pitch – that’s not my style. I get up, there’s a huddle and he [Beaton] says he needs to pick someone and I was the unlucky one to get a yellow card.
“I think it is a shocking ruling, I’ve done nothing and I’ve got a yellow card. It left me on the edge and I had a tackle in the second half and brought down Shinnie. I’ve seen them given as yellow cards. He’s given me a yellow card which wasn’t one and he’s let me of with the tackle so I’ve got no complaints towards the referee.”
It was one of a number of incidents in what became an ill-tempered match at times but Lennon admitted he was happy enough with the point. Having berated his players seven days earlier for a “disgraceful” performance at Stark’s Park, the Hibs boss was, on this occasion, in a more forgiving mood even if the fans weren’t.
He said: “I was delighted with the start we made but we gifted them a goal. That always gives any opposition encouragement and the thing is we were running on fumes by the end.
“I knew we would be. We lost another centre half which wasn’t ideal and we did look wobbly defensively in the second half but that’s not something you could cast at these players.
“Mentally and physically, they were tired. I knew Wednesday night would take a lot out of them so I’m pleased with the point.”
Acknowledging Marciano, so often little more than a spectator as teams pitch up at Easter Road and “park the bus”, played a major part in ensuring his side retained a seven-point lead in the chase for the title, Lennon said: “It’s not very often he has been called upon this season and he made some magnificent saves. We may have lost that game last year.”
While most managers would have been happy to have taken a point from Easter Road, Johnston, although accepting a draw was a good result at such a venue, said: “We’re disappointed we did not come away with three.
“We made it difficult for ourselves losing the two goals early on and we could have lost a couple more at that stage. They showed a lot of character and quality to come back. I thought we created loads of chances in the second half.
“The Hibs keeper has made some great saves and I don’t think we could have done much more.”