Hibs conceded a goal for the first time in five pre-season matches and lost for the first time under new boss Alan Stubbs in his first match in charge at Easter Road.
Not the outcome Stubbs would have been hoping for as he took a bow in front of the home fans, but while disappointed in the outcome – anyone who knows him insists the Liverpudlian is the most competitive person they’ve ever come across – was far from downhearted.
A Chris Erskine strike 13 minutes from time was enough to separate the Scottish Premiership side from the Championship outfit, but it might have been entirely different, former United striker Farid El Alagui heading home after skipper Liam Craig had nodded David Gray’s cross back across the face of goal, only to see the offside flag fluttering.
“It was a shame the goal didn’t stand,” admitted Stubbs, “but from a performance point of view, it was very positive and as good as we have been in any of our games considering the opposition we were up against, a team that will be up there probably challenging for second or third place.
“I think the fans will have left with a lot more optimism and excitement than they were probably envisaging six weeks ago.”
He found an ally in United manager Jackie McNamara, who admitted he’d been impressed by the changes wrought by his former Celtic team-mate.
McNamara said: “Hibs caused us a lot of problems, especially first half. Alan has got them playing football, which is nice to see. I think they will have a really good season and I think the Hibs fans will enjoy watching them play.”
Hull City goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who is expected to complete a season-long loan deal today, got his first taste of Easter Road, playing as a trialist, as did two of Stubbs summer signings Gray and El Alagui.
But the latest arrival, former United midfielder Scott Allan, had to settle for a seat on the bench, just one of nine substitutes which included a second trialist, 22-year-old Newcastle United midfielder Michael Richardson.
A friendly against a Scottish Premiership side isn’t usual pre-season fare, but with Watford having pulled out of a trip which would have seen them play United and then Hibs, it made sense for the two clubs to meet.
An opportunity, some might have said, for Stubbs to gauge where his new club stands in relation to the top flight although, of course, the priority is to negotiate this season and to be in a position to at least be challenging for that step up.
However, both Stubbs and his Tannadice counterpart Jackie McNamara would regard it as just another chance for their players to continue honing their fitness and touch ahead of the serious stuff.
There was interest, too, from both sets of fans in the new faces on display, United defender Jaroslaw Fojut making his debut, while striker Mario Bilate started for the first time in a side which also included new signings Callum Morris and Blair Spittal.
Those four would, no doubt, find it relatively easy to fit into United’s tried and trusted formation and the passing style of play for which McNamara’s side have become renowned, even if they will be going into the season without Ryan Gauld, off to Portugal, and Andy Robertson, set to clinch his move to Hull today.
For Hibs, in this their fifth match since Stubbs took charge and the most testing, it was yet another 90 minutes in which to adapt their style of play to that demanded by their new boss, the former Bolton, Celtic and Everton defender having ditched the “route one” tactic favoured by his predecessor Terry Butcher.
Instead, Stubbs wants the ball played on the ground, players comfortable in possession and enjoying sufficient trust in each other to knock it around even in tight situations.
It’s an approach which certainly found favour among the home fans, ripples of applause marking their appreciation of the enterprise on display, even if there was a rather subdued atmosphere around Easter Road, the supporters recognising that unlike previous seasons when these two sides have gone head-to-head this encounter meant little in real terms.
Restoring confidence and no small measure of pride to players left battered by the traumas of last season is also on Stubbs’ agenda, perhaps no more so in the case of Alex Harris, who himself has admitted his morale had plummeted, the winger unable to recover his scintillating form following an ankle break.
A broad smile, however, has once again been detected, the 19-year-old obviously enjoying his football once again, having been handed a licence to roam by Stubbs, the head coach keen to see the youngster use his undoubted talents to hurt the opposition, happy to trade those moments that don’t come off for the one that results in a goal.
To that end, Stubbs would have been delighted to see the winger do exactly that, nutmegging Ryan Dow before attempting a cheeky chip over Radoslaw Czerniak. His effort didn’t carry enough height to beat the goalkeeper on this occasion, but you don’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.
Danny Handling, too, is revelling in his role off the front, skipper Liam Craig and Scott Robertson are rebuilding their partnership in front of the back four, allowing the “kids” in front of them, Harris, Handling and Sam Stanton, to showcase their talents going forward.
Apart from football that was pleasing on the eye, however, there wasn’t too much in the way of penalty box action, a sight of goal proving elusive for both teams in the first half, Craig firing a long-range effort over, Czerniak taking a Stanton shot and then Harris sending the ball off target.
At the other end Jordon Forster had to look alert, taking the ball off the toes of Bilate as the hitman tried to turn on Dow’s pass ten yards out while Oxley, who had easily held a Nadir Ciftci free-kick in the opening minutes, came rushing off his line to boot clear as Bilate threatened to get on the end of a loose ball.
But the first moment of real danger fell to the in-form Harris, the former Edinburgh Academy pupil cutting in from the left flank to deliver a curling shot which looked as if it was curling inside Czerniak’s far post, only for the goalkeeper to leap and turn it away.
The goal, though, looked to have been only delayed and when Craig nodded Gray’s cross it back across the six-yard line, El Alagui headed high beyond Czerniak, only for the offside flag to be raised.
While McNamara fed his substitutes in at intervals, Stubbs opted for major surgery 17 minutes from time, replacing half his side. And with it came a change of formation with Hibs going three at the back.
Perhaps it was down to those wholesale changes which obviously wouldn’t happen in a competitive match but Hibs lost a touch of composure and with it the only goal of the match, Aidan Connolly feeding in Erskine for his fellow substitute to slide beyond Oxley.
It was the first goal Hibs had conceded in five matches and United almost got a second on the stroke of full-time, Brian Graham sending a glancing header from Scott Smith’s cross just wide.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray, Forster, Hanlon, Stevenson (Booth 73), Robertson (Tudur Jones 73), Craig (S Allan 73), Harris (Richardson 73), Stanton (Nelson 73), Handling (L Allan 73), El Alagui.
Substitutes not used: Perntreou, Gardiner, Duthie.
Dundee United: Czerniak, Spittal (Erskine 67), Morris, Fojut (Fraser 90), Dillon, Paton (Petrie 67), Rankin (Smith 78), Armstrong, Bilate (Mackay-Steven 62), Armstrong (Telfer 21), Dow (Connolly 73), Ciftci (Graham 62).
Substitutes not used: McCallum.
Referee: Willie Collum.