Hibs remain, as they have been since before a ball was kicked, firm favourites to win the Championship title. But it has become a long, drawn out affair for Neil Lennon’s players who appear determined to spurn any opportunity to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible.
Time after time in recent weeks the chance has arisen for them to put an unassailable distance between themselves and the chasing pack, just one win in their past six league games highlighting that apparent lack of a killer touch.
The Capital club retain a healthy lead at the top of the table, their victory against Dundee United having all but ended the Tannadice outfit’s interest in taking the flag with Morton and Falkirk now their closest challengers, seven points adrift with Jim Duffy’s players having played a game less and the Bairns one more.
Falkirk and then Morton are next up for Hibs, both games at Easter Road where, to be brutally honest, Lennon’s players have singularly failed to hammer home the advantage of playing at home in front of crowds averaging some 15,000.
Only one match has been lost on their own turf but of the 13 played, six have ended in draws such as this latest offering against Dumbarton, a game Lennon saw as an opportunity for his side to make the most of having six of their last nine fixtures played in Edinburgh.
On paper Dumbarton represented possibly the easiest of three successive games at Easter Road but, as so often has been the case, not only this season, Hibs made heavy weather of it just as they had done the visits of Ayr United and Dunfermline in the past few weeks, two teams in the lower half of the table.
In essence Hibs were a shadow of the “magnificent” side which had travelled to Tayside eight days earlier and secured a narrow but deserved win which ought to have acted as a springboard for the final stretch.
And, of course, they knew what was coming from a Dumbarton team they’d already defeated three times this season, a side which would get every body behind the ball when out of possession, seeking to frustrate and to hopefully hit on the break.
To that end Sons manager Stevie Aitken got his tactics spot-on, although aided by a laboured performance from a Hibs side shorn by suspension of the services of top scorer Jason Cummings and midfielder Fraser Fyvie.
Even so, the Capital team should have contained enough craft and guile, enough firepower, to take care of their part-time opposition with Aitken able only to name five rather than seven substitutes.
Rather than play at a pace and tempo which would stretch their opposite numbers, Hibs, as Lennon admitted, were pedestrian, allowing Dumbarton to funnel back to get a bank of four and another of five in place in front of goalkeeper Alan Martin, presenting the home side with that all too familiar problem they’ve found virtually impossible to solve, how to unlock a packed defence.
That said, Dumbarton offered little or no threat of their own until Marvin Bartley inexplicably gave Ross McCrorie a push in the back, the challenge taking place inches inside the penalty area but with McCrorie facing the touchline and presenting no danger whatsoever.
“It was a joke,” fumed Lennon, “He was going nowhere.” Christian Nade, who else, stepped up to slot home the resulting spot-kick before the Hibs boss got the chance during the interval to singe the ears of his mis-firing side.
Lennon said: “I’m not even sure if we had a sweat on at half-time, but they certainly did after I had finished with them. I was really frustrated with the first half performance, it was not acceptable.
“It’s nothing I’m doing, Managers take responsibility a lot, but it was nothing to do with tactics. We were pedestrian, clumsy, sloppy, all the things we gave them warnings about before the game and they just go out and do it.
“I’m sick of them doing this and I’m sick of us dropping points at home for not approaching games the right way.
“I don’t know whether it was a loss of concentration or whether the atmosphere wasn’t enough for them but they’ve got to go out and create it for themselves. It’s too inconsistent.
“I feel it’s not me you should be asking, you should be asking the players because I sound like a broken down record. We gave them all the warnings how to approach it.
“We were terrific against Dundee United, but there were too many errors.”
The obvious reward of getting the ball forward quicker shone through as Lewis Stevenson played a raking ball down the line to find John McGinn’s charge, the midfielder then whipping a first time cross into the danger area where Dumbarton defender Daniel Harvie turned it into his own net.
Dumbarton’s fun was over, or so the home fans thought, only for Nade to get the jump on Efe Ambrose to nod the ball on for the unmarked Robert Thomson to drill a low shot beyond Ofir Marciano, again an avoidable goal.
Lennon moaned: “I was pleased with the second-half performance, we got ourselves back into the game early but then we switch off again and they score with a punt, knock on and a shot. No matter what level of the game you are at, if you switch off you will get punished.”
Again Hibs’ response was commendable, winning a penalty as Darren Barr held down Grant Holt only for James Keatings, given a rare chance to start up-front, to see his spot-kick saved by Dumbarton goalkeeper Martin who later revealed he’d had a last gasp change of mind as to which way he was going to dive.
Martin, though, went from hero to zero as he dropped a high ball under pressure from Brian Graham. Martin Boyle showing great presence of mind as he dived to head it goalwards, his effort carrying just enough legs to take it over the line.
A late block from close range by Martin from Graham denied Hibs a winner and the chance to go nine clear, leaving Lennon to reflect: “We missed chances, missed the penalty and that summed up our day.
“It’s not the end of the world and we thoroughly deserved to win the game but we have to stop being sloppy.
“We play Falkirk and Morton in the next two games and we could have made life a lot easier for ourselves by winning.”