Hibs’ bid for a top-six finish has been left on a knife-edge after the Easter Road outfit fell victim to an incredible refereeing blunder for the second time in three SPL matches, two blunders which have robbed Pat Fenlon’s side of four precious points.
Fenlon and his players were left raging just the other week at Tannadice when Alan Muir awarded Dundee United a late penalty which allowed Johnny Russell to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat with neither the ref or his assistant spotting Ryan McGivern’s trip on Gary Mackay-Steven took place at least a foot outside the box.
One glaring error, while bitterly disappointing at the time, could probably have been grudgingly accepted as the officials, as Fenlon noted at the time, are human after all.
But to be hit by another momentous blunder in quick succession has undoubtedly tested the patience of all at Easter Road, coming as it did in a derby match. Just how referee Euan Norris and his assistant Raymond Whyte didn’t manage to spot that Leigh Griffiths’ stunning free-kick from fully 35 yards hadn’t crossed the line after crashing down off the underside of Jamie MacDonald’s cross bar only they can explain.
Virtually everyone within the ground – except MacDonald naturally – could see it clearly had, television replays showing the ball was a good yard over before it flew back out to be thumped away for a corner.
“It was miles in,” insisted substitute Kevin Thomson who was warming up on the bye-line, the midfielder later making a cameo appearance in the final five minutes having rejoined his first club until the end of the season to happily play for free, while interim Hearts boss Gary Locke conceded: “We got away with it,” before claiming it was just the sort of stroke of luck the Jambos haven’t enjoyed too often in what has been a season of seemingly endless turmoil at Tynecastle.
Norris, of course, “has form”, awarding Paul Hanlon a goal when his shot clearly hadn’t gone anywhere near crossing the line as Hibs faced Dunfermline in that relegation showdown at the end of last season. But the fourth goal in a 4-0 win is one thing, denying a winner in a derby is another entirely.
While the draw all but ended Hearts’ hopes of making a late push for a top six place – they now need to win their two remaining matches before the split by a good few goals and hope for favours elsewhere – Hibs can only wait and see just how much damage this error, coupled with the earlier bad call on Tayside, might have on their season.
It may be all ifs and buts now, but without those blunders Fenlon and his players could argue that today they’d be sitting only three points behind second-placed Motherwell but, perhaps more importantly, six in front of Dundee United. Instead, while Hibs retain sixth place, they are but a single point ahead of the Tannadice outfit and with a better goal difference, and one more better off than Kilmaranock and Aberdeen.
Three matches remain before the split with nothing in it but, arguably, it is the Edinburgh club which faces the tougher programme in the next few weeks, a tricky trip to Motherwell on Friday followed by a visit from Inverness Caley before the daunting prospect of a match at Celtic Park.
United, on the other hand, face basement outfit Dundee at home, St Johnstone away and then Aberdeen at their own place. Fenlon admitted he’s well aware of the pitfalls which now lie ahead. He said: “These are two decisions which could prove costly.
“I said that to the referee at the end of the game, they can cost people places and obviously money so there is a lot at stake.”
Ironically, Norris had called for the traditional white ball to be replaced by a yellow one to make seeing it easier as a hailstorm hit Easter Road towards the end of the first half, the irony of that call not lost on the bemused Hibs manager.
For his part Griffiths questioned the positioning of Whyte having been robbed of his 23rd goal and probably the opportunity to give Hibs their first SPL win over their arch-rivals since May 2009.
“I spoke to him (the referee) nicely,” he said. “I went over and asked if he had looked at [the assistant’s] position. He told me the linesman was standing in line with the last defender, but I looked over and saw he was standing on the edge of the 18-yard-box.”
According to Fenlon, Norris had told his players he couldn’t give a goal if he wasn’t sure, adding: “Well, once he has a look I am sure he will change his opinion on that.”
That 77th minute controversy of course dominated the fourth derby of the season – Hibs having recovered from that Cup final mauling last year – to remain unbeaten against Hearts, the three SPL games having ended in stalemate while Fenlon’s players, at least, had the comfort of knocking the holders out of this season’s competition with now only First Division Falkirk standing between them and a second successive final.
And outwith the debate which will undoubtedly rage in the city for days to come, the remainder of the game for the large part was a typical derby, long on effort, desire and commitment but short on craft, guile and finesse.
If Hibs felt robbed then Locke and his players would most likely have felt more than a little hard-done-by had they lost, Hearts having carried all the early threat in the match as the 6ft 5in figure of Michael Ngoo proved more than a handful with his obvious ability in the air allied to his strength and power.
Working in tandem with John Sutton, the pair caused Fenlon’s players more than a few problems, although the on-loan Liverpool man got in the way of his team-mate’s close-range header which might have caused Ben Williams a little difficulty, the ball deflecting for Lewis Stevenson to boot clear while Danny Wilson will feel he should have done better with a back-post header which he put wide just before half-time.
Hibs, for their part, were rarely seen as an attacking force in the opening 45 minutes, Griffiths failing to get enough power on his shot after Ryan McGivern had nodded the ball into his path and then Scott Robertson only managing to direct the ball into MacDonald’s arms as he got across the face of Kevin McHattie.
Williams was forced to push away a snap shot from Andy Webster and Hearts had faint calls for a penalty waved away as Callum Tapping went down under Alan Maybury’s challenge but thereafter the Gorgie side’s efforts petered away as Hibs, with teenage substitute Alex Harris displaying some great close control on the left flank, began to finally assert some authority. Fenlon said: “The game was very, very tight and I think it was going to take something special to win it and obviously it was a great strike from Leigh.”
And while all the talk was of the one that got away, Hibs almost snatched it in the dying seconds, Brad McKay earning himself a pat on the back from skipper Webster as he headed fellow substitute Eoin Doyle’s cross out from under his own bar.
By then, though, that went almost un-noticed as the home fans began to vent their fury at the officials who will see this as a day they’ll gladly want to forget.