It WAS, as goal hero Scott Robertson admitted, not good enough. But it was, at least, a start, a first point on the board and a result to break a run of four morale-sapping defeats.
Whether it gets Hibs’ season up-and-running remains to be seen, but, for the meantime, Robertson’s strike, also the Easter Road side’s first in reply to the 12 they’ve conceded over the course of the past few weeks, has bought manager Pat Fenlon and his players a bit of time.
One goal and one point are not, of course, going to lift the dark cloud which has descended on Leith – although the threat of both a pre-match protest and boycott which were called for by some seemingly brought to breaking point by that derby day defeat failed to materialise, the crowd just shy of that which had witnessed the opening day clash against Motherwell – with supporters needing to be convinced that despite the statistics there is no real cause for concern.
Given the current backdrop, it was no surprise to find an uneasy atmosphere within Easter Road, the nervousness transmitting itself to the pitch where Fenlon’s players made a tentative start, lacking both tempo and pace with their confidence clearly tested by recent events and the reaction those setbacks had brought against a Dundee United side which had arrived in Edinburgh without their own troubles to seek, their performances against Partick Thistle and Inverness Caley having hardly ignited their supporters.
Nevertheless, Jackie McNamara’s side quickly sensed the fragility of their opponents and only a tremendous last-gasp block by Kevin Thomson prevented Stuart Armstrong opening the scoring within 20 minutes.
It didn’t take the Tannadice midfielder long, however, to do exactly that, but, once again, it was a simple ball over the top which proved to be Hibs’ undoing, Armstrong having enough space and time to steer a low shot beyond Ben Williams despite a poor first touch.
Predictably the jeers began to ring around the ground as given the way Hibs had been playing a third SPFL defeat looked inevitable, the only sign of hope being a long-range drive from James Collins which United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak – who had earlier indulged in a shameful piece of play-acting after being caught by Michael Nelson in a bid to have the big defender booked – managed to beat away.
Unsurprisingly, Robertson and his team-mates found themselves subjected to the expected half-time rollicking from both Fenlon and his assistant Jimmy Nicholl, one the former United star admitted they’d thoroughly warranted. He said: “The manager was animated. He didn’t hold back. He was very angry with us. It hadn’t been good enough and he let us know that.”
Even so, there was little sign of Hibs salvaging even a point as United, well aware of the lack of creativity and width which was so apparent, were content to allow Fenlon’s side to have the ball, happy enough to hit on the break in search of that second goal which they knew would settle things.
Astonishingly, though, the game changed thanks to a double sending off, Thomson and Gunning sent packing by referee Crawford Allan after an ugly clash just outside the United penalty area. Thomson felt Gunning was guilty of leaving his studs showing as he made a clearance, the midfielder’s angry reaction resulting in a cluster of players pushing and shoving before the red card was flashed in the faces of the two miscreants.
“I know Kevin was disappointed with the challenge on him,” said Fenlon. “He has probably reacted, although I don’t know whether it became head-to-head or anyone threw anything, but I don’t think it was.
“It was a case that the two of them probably raised their hands. I know they say you can’t do that any more, but it’s a game for men and if you are going to send people off for that you are going to have a lot of players walking this season.”
As it was, United were forced to make a change at the back and that, McNamara insisted, had help tilt the game Hibs’ way, while Fenlon agreed the incident appeared to shake his players out of their torpor. He said: “The sendings off seemed to galvanise us. For some reason, we seemed to get going and we finished the game strongly. I do no know why, but, after that, we wanted to fight and scrap for the ball which we didn’t want to do beforehand.”
However, Hibs had goalkeeper Williams to thank for giving them the chance to rescue a point, the stand-in remaining tall as Ryan Dow was left one-on-one with him to block the midfielder’s parting shot.
And how Hibs grabbed that lifeline with both hands, Robertson displaying great determination when, having seen his first shot blocked, he thundered in to hammer home a low drive which sent players and fans alike into ecstasy as they gave vent to all that pent up frustration and anger.
Robertson played down the suggestion it had been a great strike, arguing: “The goal was more important than anything. Another defeat would have been a dreadful start to the season. It’s still not good enough. I definitely felt for the fans when we went a goal behind again and weren’t playing well. But they were brilliant in the second half when we started playing a bit better.
“It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario where they fans are not going to be supporting us if we are not doing well on the pitch, but once we started doing better they were right behind us.
“The first half had been poor and there are no excuses for it. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but after the sendings off the game seemed to open up a bit for us. We managed to get into little pockets, to get on the ball and create a few chances, although, having said that, United had chances as well.”
Reason, however slight, for hope there may be, but Robertson didn’t underplay the task facing him and his team-mates over the next couple of weeks as they face Kilmarnock and Ross County before the international break. He said: “We need to get a win. We were hoping it was going to come in this game. A point is not as good as we wanted, but it is better than last week and the week before. It’s a start.”