Hibs reclaimed second place in the SPL table by mounting their own “smash and grab” raid on McDiarmid Park with Paul Cairney securing the three points with the Easter Road outfit’s only shot on target in the entire 90 minutes.
Having fallen victim to a mugging by Aberdeen four days earlier, Pat Fenlon’s side struggled to match that performance and although they were distinctly second best for long spells in Perth, emerged with the three points from a match which exploded in an incident-packed final ten minutes.
Just as the game appeared to be heading for stalemate, Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams pulled off a tremendous save from a Nigel Hasselbaink penalty and an even better stop to beat away Liam Craig’s effort from the rebound, before Saints lost substitute David Robertson to a suspected leg break and skipper Dave Mackay to a red card as he went head-to-head with Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths.
Although Celtic’s whirlwind start in the earlier kick-off at Tynecastle robbed both sides of the thought of emerging from this contest at the head of the SPL table, there was still much to play for with the prospect of finishing the evening in second place at stake.
The protagonists, however, each made a tentative start. Much of the early action was confined to the middle of the park, with neither managing to open up their opponents’ defence to give the respective goalkeepers a much-needed warm-up considering the freezing, if dry, conditions at the sparsely populated McDiarmid Park, a creditable 893 of the crowd of 3266 having come from Edinburgh.
The power and strength of Gregory Tade provided Saints with a threat, but one which was invariably snuffed out by the attentions of Ryan McGivern, partnering Paul Hanlon in central defence once again in the continuing absence of club captain James McPake while, at the other end, Leigh Griffiths attempted to give Hibs the cutting edge they were looking for.
Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus made his first contribution, stopping David Wotherspoon’s shot after it had deflected off Dave Mackay, before Eoin Doyle burst through a couple of challenges to find the ball being laid back into his path by Griffiths, but his parting shot sped high over the bar.
Mannus’ opposite number Williams, was similarly under-occupied, competently dealing with the few crosses which came his way and easily taking a low effort from Rowan Vine which trundled through to him, before Tom Taiwo threw himself in front of a Murray Davidson shot to prevent it even reaching his goalkeeper.
There was a moment of worry for Hibs, though, as McGivern tripped Tade a foot or so outside the penalty area to halt the French striker’s progress, a challenge which brought him a booking and the Perth club a free-kick in an inviting area. Mackay’s free-kick clipped the wall in front of him before going for a corner which like so much up to this point – the 37th minute – came to nothing.
Tade was proving a thorn in Hibs’ side, powering his way through the challenge of McGivern and Lewis Stevenson to deliver a low cross for team-mate Steven MacLean, who found his path to goal blocked by a combination of Hanlon and Alan Maybury.
Stand-in skipper Hanlon became the second Hibs player to be booked – again for a foul on Tade – and on this occasion Steve Lomas’s side almost went ahead, Craig’s free-kick taking a deflection and on to the face of Williams’ bar with only seconds of the half remaining.
Given the grip Saints had enjoyed in those final few minutes, Hibs boss Pat Fenlon would no doubt have been happy enough to hear the sound of referee Craig Thomson’s half-time whistle. He said: “They’d got about us, physically they were stronger than us and we said at half-time we had to compete more – and we did.”
Saints, though, were encouraged by the way they’d ended the first 45 minutes, Tade latching on to a wayward header from McGivern only to blast high over the target before Murray Davidson knocked down Craig’s cross for Vine 12 yards out, but again Taiwo got his body between ball and goal.
Having peppered Aberdeen’s goal at the weekend, Hibs had barely managed a shot on target, but Mannus had to keep a careful eye on a Griffiths free-kick, viciously whipped in from the right touchline and spinning up off the turf.
A great challenge from Steven Anderson stopped Griffiths getting on to Wotherspoon’s cross, but Saints were soon back on the attack, MacLean forcing Williams into a low save after collecting Craig’s cross.
Hibs were being forced to hang on grimly, but it all appeared to be in vain when Wotherspoon tripped Mackay as he burrowed into Hibs’ penalty area 11 minutes from time. Referee Thomson was right to point to the spot, but Williams became the Hibs hero, throwing himself to his right to push away substitute Nigel Hasselbaink’s spot-kick and then regaining his feet to block Craig’s effort from the rebound.
It all proved too much for Saints boss Lomas who was sent to the stand, revealing he’d fallen foul of fourth official Des Roach for kicking a water bottle in frustration after seeing Hasselbaink and not usual penalty taker Mackay take the kick.
He said: “Nigel is a young lad and had the confidence to step up and take it, but I was a bit perplexed. Nigel was not long on the field and I felt one of our senior players might have taken it, but he fancied it and you cannot criticise him for stepping up. I kicked a water bottle out of frustration and said to the fourth official he might have used a bit of common sense.”
Hibs made the most of that escape by taking the lead with only eight minutes left. Griffiths threaded a pass through for Cairney, who somewhat scuffed his shot. It was, though, enough to take it under Mannus, who managed to get a hand on the ball but was unable to prevent it rolling across the line.
Saints, however, almost hauled themselves level four minutes from time, Steven Anderson powering in a header which Jorge Claros cleared off his own line.
There was further drama when Robertson was stretchered off with a suspected broken leg in the dying seconds, followed by Mackay being sent off, the skipper furious at Griffiths for having chased down the ball as it was returned to his side following his team-mate’s injury and appeared to thrust his head towards the striker’s face.
Fenlon admitted Hibs hadn’t played anywhere near as well as they had against the Dons, but he agreed that after successive defeats, this was an important result, particularly with Sunday’s Scottish Cup derby with Hearts looming. He said: “We created a lot of chances against Aberdeen and very few tonight but that sums up football. We play well, get nothing, don’t play so well and win. It was a big, big three points for us.”