Hibs left themselves with it all to do at Easter Road on Saturday after losing the first leg of their play-off against Raith Rovers despite dominating much of the match in Kirkcaldy.
The Capital side were made to pay for a glaring first-half miss by Jason Cummings, the club’s top scorer lofting the ball over the bar after John McGinn’s superb ball had left him with only goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert to beat.
A goal at that stage and the betting would have been on Alan Stubbs’ players going on to win quite comfortably but in-demand Raith boss Ray McKinnon pulled a masterstroke with a double substitution which led to the game’s only goal.
Louis Longridge supplied the corner which was powered home by the head of Harry Panayiotou to give the Fife club a narrow but handy lead as they head for Edinburgh. Panayiotou’s 75th minute effort was Raith’s first on target, Rovers’ Kevin Cuthbert having been by far the busier of the two goalkeepers without finding himself over-worked.
All the pressure beforehand was undoubtedly on Hibs, the Easter Road club having set out at the start of the season with the sole target of gaining promotion at the second time of asking, their runs to the final of both the League and Scottish Cups regarded as a bonus, albeit a welcome one.
Raith, on the other hand, had exceeded all expectations, McKinnon’s side having seemingly come from nowhere as they negotiated the final quarter of the campaign unbeaten to clinch fourth place behind Hibs.
Such was Rovers’ record – just one defeat in 15 matches and that coming against champions Rangers at Ibrox – a trip across the Forth to Stark’s Park, where they had lost last time they were in Fife, was one fraught with danger for Stubbs and his players.
However, past experience of these two-legged affairs would have told them that, while progress into the semi-finals Premiership play-offs where Falkirk lie in wait wouldn’t be won in this the first leg, it could most certainly be lost.
Astonishingly, this was Hibs’ 50th match of the season, the added workload incurred thanks to their cup exploits all too evident in that statistic although Stubbs and his players would be hoping that this game would be just the first of seven more before they finally bring the curtain down.
Cummings would hardly have been surprised by the reception he received from the home fans given his assertion that the other clubs involved in the play-offs would be scared of Hibs.
But he almost silenced them immediately, firing in a well-struck shot with his right foot which Raith goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert did well to shovel round his near post.
Cuthbert was tested again minutes later, Lewis Stevenson and Fraser Fyvie combining to give Marvin Bartley a clear sight of goal but his powerful shot from 20 yards was expertly dealt with by the goalkeeper.
A stiff breeze meant it was safety first as far as defenders were concerned, Paul Hanlon not standing on ceremony as he booted the ball into Pratt Street before James Craigen could make anything of Jason Thomson’s low cross.
It was the first threat from Raith and another moment of danger for the Hibs defence quickly followed, Ross Callachan nodding down Rory McKeown’s crossfield ball for James Craigen to take on the half-volley, his effort curling over Conrad Logan’s bar.
There was plenty of energy being expended, Fraser Fyvie clearly feeling the heat as he stripped off his under armour, but precious little in the way of goalmouth incident although Hibs looked the more threatening. Anthony Stokes was unable to get enough on a Fyvie cross before McGinn’s free-kick caused all sorts of problems for the home defence, Cummings’ toe poke blocked and then Liam Fontaine knocking the rebound over.
McKinnon would have been agitated, though, at the number of times his central defenders Craig Barr and Kyle Benedictus were allowing Stokes and Cummings in behind them and they were posted missing again when McGinn knocked a superb ball over the top to leave Cummings with only Cuthbert to beat.
The ball appeared to be dropping nicely for Cummings to hammer home his 26th goal of the season but he elected to loft it over the head of the goalkeeper and got too much on it, sending his effort over.
Then it was Stokes’ turn to find space between the Raith back four, latching onto Cummings’ pass to fire in a low shot which was well saved by Cuthbert.
Stubbs would have been satisfied enough with his team’s performance, one full of purpose and confidence as they continued to demonstrate that they’ve rediscovered the form of earlier in the season.
A goal was all that missing but they went seeking to rectify that from the start of the second half, Barr stepping in to put Fyvie’s cross behind before Stokes caused Cuthbert more than a few problems with an inswinging free-kick from the left which the goalkeeper just managed to guide to safety.
However, it continued to fail to materialise, skipper David Gray throwing himself at another Stokes’ free-kick but failing to make contact before Stevenson delivered yet another cross from the left, Cummings at full stretch getting his head to the ball but unable to direct it on target.
And, as long as it remained goalless, Raith were still very much in the match and they began to sense it, forcing two corners in quick succession which led to the opening goal with 15 minutes remaining.
Longridge’s first effort had caused problems, Iain Davidson’s flick deflected over for the on-loan Hamilton player to deliver a cross which was powered home by the head of Panayiotou beyond his former Leicester City team-mate Logan.
It was Raith’s first effort on target and it took a good save from Logan to prevent Longridge, who had injected more than a touch of pace down Rovers’ left flank, adding a second which would have made Saturday’s second leg all the more problematical for the Edinburgh side.
There was to be one final chance for an equaliser for Hibs but late substitute Liam Henderson weakly prodded Stokes’ pass wide of target. It had been that kind of night for Stubbs’ players.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Barr, Benedictus, McKeown, Connolly (Longridge 64), Davidson, Toshney, Craigen (Panayiotou 64), Hardie (Stewart 90), Callachan. Unused subs: Law, Anderson, Bates, Robertson.
Hibs: Logan, McGregor, Hanlon, Fontaine (Henderson 84), Gray, Bartley, Fyvie (McGeouch 80), McGinn, Stevenson, Stokes, Cummings (Keatings 80). Unused subs: Oxley, Gunnarsson, Boyle, Dagnall.
Referee: K Clancy