Sam Stanton will go on to enjoy a stellar career if the Hibs youngster’s undoubted talent is realised in the coming years – but rarely will he score such a vital goal as his last-gasp equaliser against Partick Thistle.
With time rapidly running out, Terry Butcher’s side were staring over the abyss, heading for a seventh-successive defeat and plunging ever closer to that dreaded play-off.
The last time Hibs had endured such a run was in season 1997/98, the year they did suffer the ignominy of relegation when, coincidentally, their opponents on the final day of the campaign, as they will be this time around, were Kilmarnock.
Plenty, then, for the merchants of doom to work on and with good reason but, with one nod of 20-year-old Stanton’s head, the dark clouds which had gathered over Easter Road were gone, replaced by Sunshine on Leith. Scottish Premiership safety has yet to be secured but, in an instant, Butcher’s players knew it was within their grasp; a win against Ross County tomorrow night and they can breathe easy.
Again, though, the pessimists will ask just how can a team which has tasted victory just once in 17 matches suddenly conjure up another one? But, in this instance, the omens appear to be on Hibs’ side. The Staggies were the last outfit to be beaten by Butcher’s men, the Capital club have won their last three games against Derek Adams’ side and emerged victorious from their last two visits to Dingwall.
Butcher will be quick to tell you that’s all in the past and has no bearing on the present but Hibs, at least, will make the long journey up the A9 with a degree of optimism, their performances against both Hearts and Partick much-improved displays, even if the two games produced just a single point.
Even that prize appeared to have eluded them as Jags goalkeeper Paul Gallacher brought off two breathtaking saves in as many minutes to twice deny Michael Nelson an equaliser after Kris Doolan had given the Maryhill side an early lead, just as he had on Thistle’s previous visit to Easter Road. Hibs defender Nelson was left shaking his head in disbelief as Gallacher got his hands to a thumping drive before enjoying a touch of luck as Jason Cummings could only knock his header from the rebound onto the post. The Partick star then thrust out a hand to touch Nelson’s netbound header onto the woodwork.
“I’ll wring his neck,” insisted Butcher of a player he helped coach as a youngster at Dundee United. “Every time he [Gallacher] plays against us, he plays well. Even when he was beaten by a deflection the ball went wide and you are thinking ‘is it never going to fall for us. Is it ever going to be our day when someone makes a mistake or someone scores an own goal for us?’. We’ve never had anything like that, but you have to keep believing. I thought we played some good stuff, showed a lot of guts, a lot of character and knocked the ball about well. The boys couldn’t even give themselves a round of applause after the game because they were that knackered, they’d put so much in to it.”
Hibs’ cause looked lost when Nelson was sent off ten minutes from time, the veteran stopper picking up a second yellow card for another foul on Thistle striker Lyle Taylor, Butcher admitting it all became a bit “harum scarum” as his side desperately fought for an equaliser. He said: “I don’t know what shape we were playing, it was a case of getting the ball into their box and seeing what happened.”
Perhaps not the most refined approach, but it eventually paid off as James Collins won the battle with Conrad Balatoni for Ryan McGivern’s cross, the ball hanging in the air long enough to tempt Gallacher from his line, only for Stanton to get their first to send a looping header over him and into the net. “It was a great feeling,” admitted the goalscorer. “A real sense of relief. It was looking as if it might never happen because Gallacher had made some brilliant saves and we’d hit the bar and the post so it was brilliant to get the goal, definitely the most important I’ve scored.”
As much as Hibs had Stanton to thank, Butcher acknowledged the part played by goalkeeper Ben Williams, the Hibs No.1 making a vital save during added-on time at the end of the first half when confronted by Jags midfielder Chris Erskine. It was a similar situation to that which had brought Thistle’s opener when Williams did well to block Doolan’s shot only to see the ball break back off the striker and trundle into the empty net.
This time, though, it was the goalkeeper who came out on top, brilliantly smothering Erskine’s effort, leaving Thistle boss Alan Archibald to admit: “If we’d gone 2-0 up it would probably have been enough.”
Butcher agreed, saying: “I think Thistle sensed they could get another goal. They break quickly on you, they all seem to have pace in abundance and, if it had gone 2-0, it would have finished the game. But Ben has brought off a great save. He didn’t have anywhere as much to do as Gallacher, but that was a vital save.”
Having seen his side concede at least two goals in each of their six previous matches, Butcher insisted losing just one was another positive to be built upon while he praised the perseverance of his players. He said: “We haven’t conceded two or three goals which is nice, we’ve scored again which is nice and we got a point which is even nicer. We played some good football in the process. Partick seemed to have a ‘death grip’ on the game and we needed a good 15 or 20 minutes getting hold of the ball and the boys rose to the occasion. There’s a saying in football that you get out of a game what you put in, but it doesn’t always happen as we saw against Hearts and it would certainly have been an absolute travesty if we hadn’t got a point from this one.”