Hibs were left heartbroken by a superb 86th-minute strike by Willo Flood as Aberdeen further strengthened their credentials as the second best team in the SPFL Premiership with a 1-0 victory.
It was a cruel blow for the Easter Road outfit, who looked as if they were set for a precious point at Pittodrie against the team Hibs boss Terry Butcher himself has tipped to end the season runners-up to Celtic.
But as disappointed as the Capital side will be to have seen their recent unbeaten run come to an end, they will be in no way disappointed, the signs of the progress made since Butcher took over from Pat Fenlon all too evident again.
Although Flood’s strike settled an entertaining match, the Dons would no doubt have been raging had he not scored, referee Craig Thomson and his assistant Stuart Stevenson somehow missing a stonewall penalty claim for the home side when Peter Pawlett’s first half cross clearly came off the outstretched arm of Hibs defender Michael Nelson.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it was Butcher’s mantra, the Hibs boss naming the same starting line-up that featured at Tannadice, meaning Paul Heffernan, having recovered from a thigh injury, was named in the starting XI for the second consecutive week.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes used this opportunity to give Alan Tate, an on-loan capture from Swansea City, his debut at the expense of Russell Anderson as the Dons sought to tighten their grip on second place, having won five out of their last six matches.
Tate’s unfamiliarity with his new team-mates almost proved immediately costly, the 31-year-old leaving a through ball believing Jamie Langfield was coming to gather, allowing Heffernan to nip in, only for the goalkeeper to get his hand in as the Hibs striker went to ground.
There were, predictably, claims for a penalty for the third match in succession for Hibs, but they were muted.
Taking the initiative in matches has been a trait evident since Butcher’s arrival and the Dons seemed a touch surprised that their visitors had taken an early grip on proceedings, Mark Reynolds stepping in with a timely clearance from Jordon Forster’s low cross with James Collins lurking after Hibs had worked the ball superbly from one side of the Pittodrie pitch to the other,
A Barry Robson block on Lewis Stevenson presented the Edinburgh side with another opportunity to test Langfield, but skipper Liam Craig, with nine goals to his name already this season, uncharacteristically curled the resulting free-kick well over the bar.
However, Aberdeen, as expected, slowly hauled themselves into the game, Craig, Stevenson and Nelson all forced to concede corners in quick succession before Hibs enjoyed a huge slice of luck as referee Thomson, so often the cause of anger to fans of the Capital club, failing to spot Nelson’s right arm blocking Pawlett’s cross from Flood’s astute pass into the penalty area,
It was the turn of the Aberdeen support to vent their fury at the whistler, while Derek McInnes’ players appeared stung at the lack of a spot kick, going close to opening the scoring when Reynolds rose at the back post to head Robson’s corner goalwards, only for Nelson and Ben Williams to combine and contrive to get the ball clear.
The pace and intelligent movement of Pawlett, allied to Flood’s ability to find him with clever passes and the speed of makeshift full-back Jonny Hayes on Aberdeen’s left flank, began to cause Hibs problems, forcing Butcher’s players into some desperate defending at times, but stand firm they did.
If there hadn’t been too much quality to the game it had, at least, been end-to-end, Hibs hitting back as the half-time whistle approached with a Collins chip which was headed clear by Reynolds before another loose pass in the Aberdeen penalty area saw Heffernan slide a low shot just wide.
The 15 minutes in the dressing-room would have been welcomed by Butcher’s players, a chance to draw breath and regroup, although they’d have been reasonably pleased with their efforts, even if they perhaps hadn’t tested Langfield as much as they might have wished.
The Dons goalkeeper, though was sent sprawling as he held a low Heffernan shot, a half-chance engineered by the ever-willing Collins who, again, put in a tremendous shift, happy to do his share of defending as well as leading the line.
As the hour mark came and went it remained a game which was finely poised, increasingly taking on the appearance of a match which could well be settled by a single goal.
Both defences – having each conceded just 19 goals prior in their first 21 league matches – were showing few signs of allowing that parsimony to slip, Langfield clutching a Paul Cairney free-kick to his chest, while Nelson ensured Williams behind him wasn’t troubled as he got his knees in the way of a Robson shot.
Collins might have done better when released by a Jordon Forster pass, but with Heffernan inside him and in space, the striker failed to lift his head and yet another half-chance was gone.
Neither side, though, was considering holding on for a point, Butcher making positive substitutions in replacing the booked Scott Roberston with Sam Stanton, Heffernan with Jason Cummings and, for the final 11 minutes Alex Harris who came on for Cairney to make his first appearance since suffering a broken ankle on the opening day of the season, moves which only underlined the manager’s faith in the current crop of Easter Road kids.
Aberdeen tucked themselves in behind leaders Celtic with a last-minute strike from Reynolds against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Sunday and Hibs would no doubt have been well aware that a third of the Dons’ goals this season had come in the final quarter of an hour.
And, yet again, it was Aberdeen’s never-say-die spirit which saw them home as Flood curled a superb shot beyond Williams with only four minutes remaining on the clock, a cruel blow as Butcher tasted defeat for only the second time as Hibs manager.