Second top against second bottom. A side defeated just once since the opening day of the season against a team new to the SPL, beaten in their last three matches and without a win at home.
And yet the only surprise at the final outcome of this game was that it was no surprise at all in this topsy turvy season which by the week throws up unexpected results. Hibs themselves have produced a few performances which have probably caused an eyebrow or two to rise given the Easter Road outfit’s troubles of the past couple of years.
This time round it was Pat Fenlon’s players who were the victims in what was the proverbial five-goal thriller, a match which swung one way and the other and left both clubs with a justifiable argument as to why they should have won, which possibly suggests a draw might have been the fairer result.
Fairness, however, doesn’t come into it in football. It’s a results-driven business and at the end of the day scant attention will be paid to the reasons why the Edinburgh club departed Dingwall for the long journey home feeling hard done by, the record book will always show Ross County scored three goals to their two.
Even so, Hibs boss Fenlon admitted he’d been left “scratching his head” as he tried to grasp just how his players had ended up the losing side given the second half chances they created following an opening 45 minutes in which they were again slow out of the blocks despite having been given the perfect start as Leigh Griffiths claimed his seventh goal of the season with barely six minutes on the clock.
Griffiths caught the Staggies defence on their heels as he brought David Wotherspoon’s “dink” over the top down before slipping the ball under goalkeeper Michael Fraser, a strike which, given County’s successive defeats by St Johnstone, St Mirren and Inverness Caley – games in which they had shipped ten goals – appeared even that early on to have put Hibs on track to maintain their pursuit of Celtic at the head of the table.
Instead, the Easter Road side committed the cardinal sin, conceding the equaliser within three minutes, Stuart Kettlewell the first to react as Richard Brittain’s inswinging corner fell at his feet six yards out. It was a precursor of what was to come, the Capital outfit simply unable to cope with County’s direct approach in which they used the ability of Brittain and Ian Vigurs to deliver telling crosses to the full.
Fenlon conceded as much saying: “We did not deal with the long ball in to our box, we gave away too many free-kicks as well which invited the long ball in to our box where we didn’t deal with it properly.”
There was no better example than County’s second goal, a simple hanging ball forward from Brittain which tempted Ben Williams to the edge of his area, the goalkeeper unable to use his hands as he crossed the line leaving Vigurs to knock it past him and, despite a tightening angle, to slide it between the post and James McPake’s despairing sliding attempt to clear.
County boss Derek Adams would rightly insist it was no more than his players deserved but even so they found themselves level, McPake stretching out his left leg to hook a tremendous volley from Griffiths’ free-kick beyond a startled Fraser.
Rough justice, perhaps, on the home side, but Hibs improved immensely after the interval, getting the ball down and passing it with Wotherspoon and Jorge Claros, despite the shattering 5,200-mile journey back to Scotland following international duty with Honduras, proving a telling influence.
The first 20 minutes or so of the second period didn’t provide much in the way of goalmouth incident but for the final quarter it was end-to-end stuff with Hibs enjoying more possession and looking as if they might just sneak the win.
Paul Hanlon strode forward to fire in a powerful shot which Fraser just managed to turn round the post, Griffiths headed a Wotherspoon cross just over and then saw a rising shot clip the crossbar while Claros chanced his arm with a low shot which sped across goal and out.
At the other end County would point to Grant Munro’s goalbound header which thumped off McPake and Mihael Kovacevic’s shot which flew over as proof they carried just as much threat but once more it was Hibs’ fragility when confronted with the simplest of high balls which proved their undoing.
There appeared little danger as Scott Boyd prepared to take a free-kick from well within his own half, the defender slipping as he made contact and yet the ball travelled deep into Hibs’ penalty area where Gary Glen managed to apply a slight touch, enabling his fellow substitute Colin McMenamin to knock home the winning goal.
Even then the game wasn’t over as Hibs went in search of another equaliser, Vigurs cracking a shot off the bar before Adams pulled off what proved to be something of a masterstroke, replacing the disappointed Glen for the final couple of minutes as he threw on Ross Tokely, the veteran defender getting himself in the way of Hanlon’s netbound header only seconds afterwards.
It was a result which, as skipper McPake admitted afterwards had left him and his team-mates kicking themselves, knowing full well they had been the authors of their own downfall while insisting his first goal of the season meant nothing as a result.
The big defender said: “The way we defended was more annoying than anything. It was frustrating because we lost three goals, all to mistakes. We’ve been quite strong doing the basics but unfortunately this time we made three errors of judgment.
“We have got to defend better than that, it’s simple. But if we are going to lose three soft goals every week we will lose every game.
“We dominated the second half and I thought we were going to nick it at the end but unfortunately it went the other way.”
And Wotherspoon pinpointed Hibs’ slow start as being at the heart of their defeat. He said: “I think we played badly in the first half and were lucky to be in the game at 2-2. We didn’t show the desire we did in the second when we showed a bit of fight, won more second balls in the middle of the park, got the ball down, passed it and played a bit.
“We looked threatening going forward, as if we were going to score every time we went forward. We had quite a few chances but unfortunately it was one of those days when it doesn’t go in.”