It was an afternoon which promised much. The stars appeared to be aligning in Hibs’ favour, their closest rivals having all dropped points the previous day, leaving the way clear to reclaim top place in the Championship.
There was, of course, the small matter of disposing with the challenge of Dundee United, seen by many as the Capital club’s biggest rivals for the title. Manage that and Neil Lennon’s players would not only have been back at the head of the pack but safe in the knowledge that a number of those chasing them were just that little bit further adrift.
Instead, it’s a case of “as you were,” the loss of seven points in their past three league games having hammered home the message to those who were expecting Neil Lennon’s side to romp away that it’s not going to be that easy.
And yet Hibs could be comfortably ahead but for that all too familiar shortcoming of somehow finding a way to let precious points trickle through their fingers. A fortnight ago against Ayr United they were ahead and coasting only to lose, albeit after going down to ten men, and again in this instance although their lead was one goal – thanks to James Keatings’ first goal of the season – victory was allowed to elude them.
Yet again possession and territorial dominance counted for little, United making the most of the limited openings which came their way with French defender William Edjenguele powering home a header to claim a point which boss Ray McKinnon admitted he was happy to accept.
It was, though, another afternoon of frustration for Lennon and his players as midfielder John McGinn admitted. He said: “First half I thought we were the better team we were so far ahead and deserved our lead. But we let it get away from us and lost a stupid goal which cost us.
“We did have chances, not as many as we would have liked and with the players we have we have to be creating more, scoring more. We are not doing that at the minute but it shouldn’t take one set piece to mean we don’t take the three points. We are all disappointed.”
McGinn who now leaves on international duty with Scotland, insisted complacency wasn’t at the root of Hibs’ recent troubles, adamant there had been no talk within the dressing room of waltzing off with the title.
He said: “At the start of the season we didn’t think it was going to be a canter or anything like that. Rangers found it tough, we’ve found it tough over the past couple of seasons and I think United are finding it the same, it’s not an easy league at all and if we are to go up we will have to earn it.
“You keep your eye on what’s happening elsewhere but first and foremost you have to concentrate on yourselves. We knew we could go top but we have failed.”
Having bemoaned the lack of goals in recent weeks, Lennon decided on a different tack, abandoning the “little and large” pairing of Jason Cummings and, primarily, Grant Holt and Brian Graham in favour of two wee guys up front with Keatings partnering Cummings.
It was Keatings’ first start since St Mirren away towards the end of August and he almost provided an immediate reminder to his manager of his credentials, beating United’s Cammy Bell all ends up with a superbly struck free-kick from 23 yards but finding the outside of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
McKinnon had promised that, unlike other sides, his team, although ravaged by injury, wouldn’t pitch up at Easter Road and simply “park the bus,” the Tayside outfit well aware that if they are to realise their own ambition of an immediate return to the Premiership more than a point is required home and away.
It did, though, offer Hibs the opportunity to get on the ball, to move and pass and create space which they sought to exploit although there were times when they tended to over-elaborate and look for that final killer ball rather than test Bell with an early strike.
Whatever McKinnon’s intentions, his side did find themselves pressed back as Hibs sought that opening goal which almost came through yet another intricate passing movement around the United penalty area, Andrew Shinnie and Keatings were the architects, waiting until John McGinn found himself free to deliver a low cross which Shinnie could only send high and wide.
Hibs, however, had to be aware of the danger of being hit on the counter and they received a timely warning when Simon Murray was left with only goalkeeper Ofir Marciano to beat but he failed to do so with a weak, unconvincing shot.
Hibs duly took note and seconds later they were ahead, Shinnie holding the ball, waiting for the moment to release and he did so to perfection as he found the run of Keatings who matched the quality of the pass with a left-foot shot which whistled low across Bell and into the far corner of the net.
Nick Van der Velden gave Hibs a fright as he brought down Scott Fraser’s deep corner, made space for himself and unleashed a shot which took the slightest of deflections to put it into the side-netting.
Again, Hibs’ reaction was instant, Shiinnie once more timing his pass this time for Dylan McGeouch to burst forward and drill in a low shot which was well held by Bell.
Hibs skipper David Gray had picked up a knock in the first half and failed to reappear, giving new signing Neal Eardley his first taste of action.
Cummings may have been forced to live in the shadow of United’s towering central defender Edjenguele, but he wriggled clear within a minute of the restart to give Bell an anxious moment as he blazed in a powerful rising shot which zipped over the crossbar.
Murray managed to get his head to Fraser’s free-kick to wrong-foot Marciano but luckily for Hibs the ball drifted wide before Cummings slipped in Paul Hanlon who neatly side-stepped the challenge of Frank van der Struijk only to drag his shot wide to his obvious disgust.
United, however, were enjoying more possession than they had in the first half without being able to do too much about it. That was until Edjenguele was allowed to rise and meet Fraser’s corner to power home a header to haul the Tannadice outfit level.