Controversy and Willie Collum are no strangers, so it will come as little surprise to find the spotlight firmly trained on the referee again after he was accused of getting yet another big decision wrong.
Collum drew heavy criticism earlier in the year, sending off St Mirren’s Kenny McLean and Stephen McManus of Motherwell in the space of just three days only for both players to win appeals against their red cards.
Nothing so dramatic this time round but Collum left virtually everyone inside Easter Road baffled as to why he didn’t award a free-kick to Hibs when Rangers’ Lee Wallace clattered into Paul Hanlon, leaving Kenny Miller to drill home the loose ball which brought the under-fire Ibrox club their first win in six matches and ended the Edinburgh outfit’s unbeaten run of 15 games, the last seven of which they had won.
The fact that Rangers were already a goal to the good – Wallace having scored on the stroke of half-time – and there only being ten minutes left might suggest Collum’s call had little effect on the game’s outcome, but it was a view no-one in green shared, not least Hanlon who found himself booked for his protests.
However, at that stage Hibs, having produced a below par performance in the opening 45 minutes, were beginning to dominate without, admittedly, over-working Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell who eventually managed to negotiate the entire match without having a meaningful save to make.
But, as Hanlon insisted, a one-goal lead is always a precarious one, as Hibs know all too well having surrendered such an advantage more than once this season.
“It effectively killed the game,” the defender said.
“It was a big moment, we had momentum at that point and 1-0 is a fragile lead, especially with us being at home and fancying ourselves putting on a bit of pressure towards the end of the game. But that decision ruined our chances of maybe getting a point out of the game.”
A point, of course, wouldn’t have been enough to stop Capital rivals Hearts getting their hands on the Championship trophy while enjoying an afternoon off. With Rangers, the pre-season favourites for the title already out of the equation, Hibs knew only a fourth successive win over the Ibrox club would have delayed the inevitable Gorgie party but, more importantly to them, would have further tightened their grip on second place.
As it is, Alan Stubbs’ players retain that position, albeit the six-point advantage they held as they went into this game, has been halved while, they will claim, Collum robbed them of any hope.
The pivotal moment came as Hanlon, having read Kenny Miller’s pass to his team-mate, found himself flattened by Wallace, the incident causing a moment’s hesitation in the home defence, enough to allow the former Hibs striker to take full advantage.
“Play to the whistle,” was Miller’s observation, the former Scotland star admitting a first win under boss Stuart McCall had brought a much needed boost to confidence following a run of five successive draws which had led to the threat of Rangers perhaps not even making a play-off spot at all.
But while Miller felt it was Wallace’s momentum which had taken him into Hanlon who, he felt, was off-balance in any case, the Hibs defender had, as you would expect, a totally different take on the moment. He said: “I felt I read the pass and got in front of Wallace, I got my right foot to it and then, I felt, I was taken out. I think the whole stadium was waiting on the whistle but I didn’t see what happened after that. I was either on the floor or in mid-air.”
To add insult to injury Hanlon found himself becoming the 113th player this season to find himself going into Collum’s wee black book as, along with a number of team-mates, he questioned the decision.
Hanlon said: “He just decided to book me for dissent although I wasn’t saying a lot to him. I was saying it was a foul along with everyone else who was around him. I don’t think I was even in his face but he just decides he has to pick a player and book him.”
Having enjoyed that unbeaten run stretching back to the first week in December, Stubbs and his players would have been disappointed with their first-half offering, Hibs struggling to come to terms with a change in formation from Rangers as McCall opted for a 3-5-2 having admitted to a “masochistic” midweek review of the Capital club’s 4-0 hammering on their last visit to Easter Road.
McCall made the observation Rangers hadn’t had to cope with the pace of Jason Cummings this time round, the teenager sidelined by the knee injury he’d picked up against Cowdenbeath – and that much was evident. Hibs’ front pairing of Dominique Malonga and Franck Dja Djedje aren’t as willing as Cummings to run in behind, to stretch defenders and have them turning towards their own goal, the back three of Marius Zaliukas, Lee McCulloch and Bilel Mohsni rarely stretched by the pair although Stubbs’ side was much improved after the interval.
Hanlon said: “The manager said at half-time to be a bit more confident, to believe in ourselves a bit more. We kind of struggled to get out in the first half at times, there were a few slack passes and we couldn’t get our game going as well as we wanted.
“But he said he was delighted with our second-half performance, we had a couple of half chances we could have taken but the second goal kills it off.”
Improved Hibs might have been, a Liam Fontaine header which flew wide being all they had to show for their first-half efforts, but they engineered only one notable chance, Dja Djedje dispossessing Mohsni but, with a clear run-in on Bell, he inexplicably opted to try to find Malonga rather than test the goalkeeper.
While Hibs may have gone into this match as red-hot favourites given the 9-1 aggregate they’d run up in the previous league encounters, Hanlon insisted: “I think every game has been difficult against them, we have just been on our game and taken our chances.
“This time they were right up for it but I suppose that’s what you are expecting, a new manager, a big game like that.”
And when it was pointed out the result had finally secured Hearts a title which has been theirs for weeks now, Hanlon said: “I hadn’t given that a thought. I think it was only a matter of time. They have done well through the whole season and have beaten near enough everybody.
“But we’re not worried about that, we will concentrate on ourselves. We’ve had a disappointing result but now we need to put it behind us, move on and start another good run again.”