Dream is over as Hibs count errors in derby defeat
Hibs' dream of capping a memorable return to the top flight by taking second place evaporated in the cruellest of fashions, a rare derby defeat by Capital rivals.
The Easter Road side had gone into the fifth and final meeting of the season with their city rivals with that runners-up spot very much within their grasp.
But they let it slip, coming out second best to a pumped up Hearts side who, knowing they could finish no higher than sixth, were playing purely for the bragging rights which they will now enjoy over the summer months.
For Hibs, fourth is now the best the they can manage – barring victory over Rangers by the unlikely margin of six goals in Sunday’s final match of the season which would lift them the one place.
The defeat also saw a guaranteed place in Europe next season wrenched from them, leaving Neil Lennon’s players with their fingers crossed that Celtic can beat Motherwell in the Scottish Cup final and so help them out in that regard.
Hibs may have been enjoying a purple patch as far as Edinburgh derbies are concerned but Neil Lennon’s players pitched up at Tynecastle looking for their first win in Gorgie in five years.
Putting that record straight, while satisfying, would though be secondary to the impact the three points would have on the fight for second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, Lennon underlining his intention of going for the win by failing to name one defender among his seven substitutes.
The Hibs boss also tweaked his formation, going to a flat back four while Brandon Barker replaced Australian striker Jamie Maclaren to give the Easter Road side width on the left with Martin Boyle charged with doing likewise on the opposite flank while Scott Allan tucked in behind Kamberi up front.
After the fuss made by Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers over the length of the grass at the weekend, the Tynie surface had enjoyed a pre-match trim, not that Lennon himself had been unduly concerned, reckoning the narrowness of the pitch and hostile atmosphere make it an awkward venue at any time.
As was expected, it was a frenetic start with referee Craig Thomson, taking charge of his final Capital derby, clamping down immediately but he needed all his experience to try to keep a lid on things as the match threatened to overheat.
Hibs were left furious as Joaquim Adao attempted to haul John McGinn to his feet after he had been left on the turf by a legitimate challenge from Demetri Mitchell, the midfielder still lying just outside Hearts penalty area as attention switched to the opposite end where Kyle Lafferty was high and late on Lewis Stevenson as he cleared.
The usual melee ensured, Lafferty was booked and Adao was lucky to escape with only a booking, but it was an indication of the potential for this match to erupt.
Other than a Barker shot which was comfortably held by Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, there had been little in the way of goalmouth action up until that point. Hearts had loud shouts for a penalty claim waved away as Steven Naismith went down under Efe Ambrose’s challenge.
However, that was all forgotten as far as the home side were concerned when, seconds later, Stevenson was unaware of Lafferty behind him as Naismith’s pass came in his direction, a fatal lapse as the Hearts striker nicked the ball off him and rolled it beyond the helpless Ofir Marciano in the Hibs goal.
It was a blow for Hibs and their aspirations but they needed to settle themselves and take a bit of the heat out of the game, Barker giving McLaughlin his first real test as he cut in from the left to unleash a shot which the goalkeeper pushed aside. However, they almost conceded a second when David Milinkovic shrugged Stevenson aside and fed the ball to Harry Cochrane, who looked certain to score until Darren McGregor stepped in to deflect his shot wide.
Hibs were forced into a change before half-time, Boyle limping off to be replaced by Dylan McGeouch, prompting a reshuffle with Allan pushed further right to allow the substitute to slot in alongside McGinn.
The break allowed Lennon to readjust again, going to a three at the back with Steven Whittaker moving right in the middle while Barker, up front, went through the middle with Kamberi. And within two minutes of the restart Hibs were level as Stevenson, seeking to make amends for that earlier aberration, charged down the left and into the Hearts penalty area where he was felled by Adao, Kamberi stepping up to hammer home the spot-kick in style.
It was just what Hibs needed, their bid for second place revived – but they weren’t level for long. Paul Hanlon found himself on the wrong side of Lafferty, his hand in the striker’s back drawing the foul which allowed Cochrane to deliver the ball at pace for Naismith to glance beyond Marciano and into the far corner of his net. Lennon again switched his pack, making a surprise change in replacing Hanlon with Maclaren as he reverted to a back four with Barker moving wide left again to allow the newcomer to partner Kamberi.
Lennon played his final card, replacing Allan with Vykintas Slivka and the Lithuanian internationalist almost immediately did the trick, setting off on a surging run before laying the ball off to Barker on his left but the winger took it a touch wide and fired high over the bar.
Hibs threw everything at it as six minutes were added to the regulation 90, Kamberi swivelling to fire one last effort wide.
It had, though, been a below-par performance from Hibs compared to the recent displays which had drawn such warming plaudits. What a night for that to happen, but amid the immediate disappointment, Lennon and his players can look back on a season with pride in the way in which, after a three-year exile in the Championship they’d returned to the top flight to produce so many memorable moments for their growing number of fans.