IF THE drive and determination which Hibernian showed in the last half-hour of this game had been present all season, their relegation worries would have been over long ago.
They fought back from a goal down, recovered from the blow of losing a late equaliser and, all in all, showed they were up for the fight against opponents who could have had the game wrapped up by half-time.
This result takes Hibs six points clear of Dunfermline at the bottom of the SPL. With six games to go, that margin is by no means decisive and the Fife team have been written off before only for them to fight back.
But Pat Fenlon’s team will take massive heart from this one. It does not matter how improbable the outcome was, nor how implausible Hibs’ recovery seemed. They made it and three points are three points no matter how they come about.
Caley Thistle took the game to Hibs from the start, clearly resolved on putting the visitors under pressure. The first opportunity the home team had was no more than a half-chance – a high ball into the box which Gregory Tade tried unsuccessfully to take acrobatically in the air when it looked like he had the time to bring the ball down then attempt a more orthodox shot on goal.
The striker’s failure to connect meant Graham Stack was not troubled, but the Hibs goalkeeper was soon called into action to pull off decent saves from Graeme Shinnie and Jonny Hayes.
Hibs could consider themselves fortunate not to be a goal behind at that stage, and were even luckier around the half-hour mark when a pass from Hayes put Billy McKay through on goal, only for the striker to fire a shot off the right post.
They came into the game more towards half-time, and Lewis Stevenson began to show some neat touches in midfield. But they remained virtually incapable of stringing two decent passes together going forward, while full-backs Matt Doherty and Pa Kujabi looked vulnerable to every attack down the flanks.
It was by no means one-way traffic in terms of possession: the difference lay in Hibs’ inability to do anything positive when they had the ball.
That pattern remained the same in the early stages of the second half too, with the Hibs defence relying on a couple of tight offside decisions to come to their aid when they were stretched close to breaking point.
But, while they were aided by those decisions from the assistant linesman, they were soon undone by another from referee Bobby Madden with just under an hour played. A corner from the left took a deflection towards McKay and, just as he was about to turn and shoot, he went down under a challenge by Paul Hanlon.
The speed of the turn might have been enough on its own to knock McKay off balance, but Madden ruled that Hanlon’s challenge had done the damage, and pointed to the penalty spot. Greg Tansy stepped up and scored with a firmly struck shot which gave Stack little chance.
Worse nearly followed for Hibs a minute later when Tade was through on goal following a sudden break. This time, however, the goalkeeper was able to make a difference, blocking with his feet to keep his team in the game.
Eager to kill off the contest, the home team immediately had another chance following a corner. Foran sent the ball back into the box after it had been cleared, but Ross Tokely’s volley was off target.
Having failed to double their lead, Caley Thistle then conceded a soft equaliser. Leigh Griffiths’ corner from the right was allowed to go straight to the unmarked Hanlon, and the centre-half headed in from the edge of the six-yard box.
That stunned the home team – but not half as much as Garry O’Connor’s goal a dozen minutes later. Doherty’s run down the right from an Osbourne pass might have looked innocuous at first, but the defender was allowed to continue into the box. As they belatedly became aware of the danger and tried to close the full-back down, Caley Thistle left O’Connor unmarked. The striker made no mistake when the cutback came, slamming it into the net first-time.
Hibs played with far more determination from that point, but were soon pegged back when a Hayes cross from the left confused Stack and drifted into the far corner of the net.
They have wilted in the face of such cruel blows too often this season, but this time they responded magnificently and regained the lead three minutes later.
Nothing looked on when Griffiths took up possession on the left of midfield, but – on an increasingly slippery surface – he jinked inside Tokely to give himself space, then sent a shot across the face of Tuffey’s goal and into the far corner of the net to send the visiting supporters delirious.
There was still time for Caley Thistle to fight back, and Tokely looked certain to equalise with a header from a left wing cross. But substitute Eoin Doyle got in to pull off a valuable clearance – and Hibs had pulled off an invaluable result.