It wasn’t quite as bad as Leigh Griffiths’s stunning free-kick “goal” that wasn’t awarded against Hearts in March 2013 that ultimately denied Hibs a place in the top six of the SPL that year
But referee Barry Cook’s inability to spot that Dominique Malonga’s penalty against Dumbarton on Saturday crossed the line could be costly come the end of the season.
Hibs’ 0-0 draw with Dumbarton, coupled with Hearts’ 1-0 win at Alloa, means that the Easter Road side go into this week a whopping 14 points behind their table-topping rivals. Stuck in fifth spot, Hibs are three points off the play-offs and in a league where margins will be fine, not registering a victory here will stick in the craw.
Make no mistake, Hibs should have won this match. Dumbarton looked menacing for about the first ten minutes and then retreated further and further as the game went on. Hibs racked up more than a dozen corners, had plenty of shots and, of course, even scored a “goal” when Malonga’s 40th minute penalty burrowed its way under Dumbarton goalkeeper Danny Rogers and over the line before the Sons stopper could claw it back. Referee Barry Cook, as our picture shows, was in a great position to call it. One could even argue Andy Graham, the visitors’ captain, should have been sent off for hauling down Malonga when he looked destined to score from eight yards out.
It was all scant consolation for Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs. “It does sting when the officials are ten, 12 yards away from it,” he lamented. “There’s fans 50, 60 yards away and they can see it. You’d like to think that when you’ve got two officials, in close proximity to it, they can see the ball going over the line, that at least one of the would give it.
“But we have to get on with it. It wasn’t the only thing today. We can’t legislate for, well, how can I put it, indifferent decisions.” Asked if he was referring to Cook’s decision only to book Graham for denying what appeared to be a clear goal-scoring opportunity, Stubbs said: “That’s for you to write rather than me to comment on because obviously it’s difficult to comment on people’s performances as we can get in trouble. I’m presuming he [Cook] has had better days.
“It was a completely one-sided performance,” Stubbs continued, “but we haven’t scored and if we score a goal it’s a completely different game. If anything, I can’t fault the players’ attitude. The desire to get on the ball and be brave and look for passes... they kept doing it and as long as they keep doing that, I will never criticise them whatsoever. The only thing we haven’t done right today is getting the reward from our play. They’ve come for what they wanted, but unfortunately we’ve not got what we’ve wanted.”
Dumbarton manager Ian Murray even admitted that his team were fortunate not to concede. “I didn’t think it was a penalty, but I’m led to believe that the ball did definitely go over the line,” he said. “The ball did squirm under Rogers’ body – and that’s come from us and Hibs. But was it a penalty? Probably not. And if it is a penalty, he has to send the guy off and he only gave him a yellow. But I suppose if it was at the other end, we’d be screaming for it.”
Incorrect decisions are part and parcel of football, though, and Hibs really shouldn’t have had to rely on a penalty just crossing the line to beat Dumbarton. The part-timers were enthusiastic and well-organised, but Hibs created some good chances. They had 25 shots – 14 of which were on target – and forced 14 corners. They had 60 per cent of the possession, but chalked up nothing on the scoreboard and that, ultimately, is what matters most.
The reason for that was wastefulness, either with the final pass or poor finishing. Jason Cummings may have bagged a brace at Ibrox to sink Rangers two weeks ago, but he wasn’t firing here. He drew a few tidy saves from Rogers with shots from distance, but fluffed his lines on the half-hour mark when he glanced a David Gray cross wide when any tangible connection would have resulted in a goal.
Malonga didn’t really flourish either. He looks laid-back, almost horizontal, for most of the game, but it’s clear the Frenchman has talent. He played just behind Cummings and found plenty of space, but his passing and finishing were below standard. Even though his penalty crept over the line, it was a poor effort. It had power, but no direction, and it was no surprise to see him replaced by Paul Heffernan on 68 minutes.
Heffernan did find the net in his 22-minute cameo, but his goal was chalked off for offside. Gray drove over a low cross and Liam Craig, who was in an offside position, went for it first, but missed. The fact the flag was raised for him rather than the Irishman just compounded Hibs’ misery.
Dumbarton, for their part, only really threatened sporadically. Scott Agnew had a 12th-minute shot parried clear by Mark Oxley, while the cumbersome yet awkward former Hibs striker Colin Nish flicked a long throw-in from Scott Linton just wide. He spurned a more presentable opportunity in the second period, blazing wide from a favourable position.
Hibs threw everything at the Sons in the final ten minutes, no doubt spurred on by the memory of a memorable comeback in August against the same opposition in the League Cup when they roared back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Alas, the scorers that evening weren’t on the pitch. Sam Stanton, the match-winner, never strayed off the subs’ bench despite his hat-trick for the Hibs Under-20s in midweek, while double-marksman Farid El Alagui was sat just in front of the press box sporting a moon boot to aid his recovery from an Achilles injury. How they could do with his predatory instinct at present.
Paul Hanlon threatened twice in that final onslaught with headers that were too close to Rogers to cause real trouble, while substitute Matty Kennedy’s rasping shot was turned over the bar in what proved to be the last kick of the match.
Hibs were hard-done-by with Cook’s decisions, but the stark truth is that are going to start winning games if they are to make a lasting impression on the Championship. “Where we are at this moment in time is where we are,” added Stubbs. “It is only us that can get us out of the predicament that we find ourselves in. We won’t look for excuses. We’ll take it on the chin and look to put the club back where it belongs. It was never going to be easy, and unfortunately it was never going to be a quick fix. [Relegation] happened quickly and no-one could foresee it happening. There’s been a lot of turnaround with the players and the players here are doing as well as they can do. We’ll keep going. As I’ve said all along, judge us at the end of the season and where we are then.”
Fourteen points, however, already looks a gargantuan gap to bridge with league-leaders Hearts and Hibs can’t let Queen of the South and Raith get too far away from them in third and fourth. They control games with ease in their 3-5-2 formation, but the build-up play is still more ponderous than pompous when playing stuffy teams at Easter Road and that will have to be rectified, sooner rather than later. Stubbs is right that where Hibs are at the end of the season is crucial, but they must not be left too far behind too soon and that issue hasn’t been lost on the Hibs fans, who sounded a chorus of boos at full-time, no doubt for referee Cook, but also for another case of dropped points.