Hibs 2, Livingston 1: Martin Boyle screamer seals victory
Super sub Martin Boyle hammered home a stunning 30-yard strike to give Hibs their first league win in six matches to cut second-placed Falkirk's advantage to just three points.
Alan Stubbs’ men had to come behind after Jordan White had fired Livingston into a shock lead, the ninth game in succession the Easter Road side have failed to keep a clean sheet.
Livingston were inching towards an important victory in their bid to avoid the relegation play-off spot but the game was turned on its head within three dramatic minutes.
With quarter of an hour left, Anthony Stokes hauled Hibs level, drilling home a low shot – but the best was yet to come.
Three minutes later, Boyle struck with a genuine contender for goal of the season, his timing and execution perfect to leave Livingston goalkeeper Marc McCallum shaking his head in disbelief.
Hibs and Livingston went into this match with totally differing reasons for wanting the three points, the Easter Road side intent on beginning to reel in Falkirk while David Hopkin’s players were hoping to leapfrog Dumbarton in their bid to avoid the relegation play-off spot.
To that end, Stubbs introduced Farid El Alagui for his first start in almost a year when, coincidentally, Livingston were the opposition, Hibs making the short trip west to record a 3-1 win.
El Alagui had, of course, scored that vital equaliser against St Mirren at the weekend, Stubbs admitting the 31-year-old offered a different element, a more physical presence which would allow his side to be more direct when required.
He started up front by himself, top scorer Jason Cummings and Stokes playing either side of Liam Henderson behind him while Kevin Thomson and John McGinn provided the protection for the back four.
The clear hope was that those three would provide the Capital club with too much firepower against a side which had held them to a 0-0 draw the last time they met, Hibs having taken a miserable four points from the six intervening league games.
El Alagui, however, was to last just 38 minutes, limping off clutching his left hamstring to be replaced by James Keatings.
After a 12-match absence following a knee injury, Fraser Fyvie returned to take a seat on the bench, another step towards Stubbs again having his full squad available, Paul Hanlon having made his comeback at the weekend while Dylan McGeouch could be in action within the next couple of weeks.
Astonishingly, this was Hibs’ first home league match since the end of February, their exploits in both the League and Scottish Cups and the games postponed as a consequence, resulting in a congested calendar of nine fixtures this month.
Hibs’ intent was clear from the off, man of the moment McGinn riding three challenges to fire in a low shot bound for the far corner of McCallum’s net until the goalkeeper got down to superbly touch the ball round his post.
For their part, Livingston were anticipating their opponents having the bulk of possession, the back four operating behind a midfield five and the early indication were that it might be a long evening for them, Stokes whipping in a cross which saw David Gray’s cutback strike White before McCallum just managed to hold onto Darren McGregor’s header from the resultant corner.
But Livingston stunned Hibs by taking the lead in the 23rd minute. Jackson Longridge’s ball in from the left found Osman Kakay, who twisted and turned in an effort to find space for a shot before the ball broke back to White, who hit it first time, finding the roof of Mark Oxley’s net from 16 yards.
White’s strike rocked Hibs but they set about seeking an equaliser, Henderson swinging in a terrific ball which Gray met at full stretch, unable to steer it into the far corner of the net. And, in a move straight off the training ground, Henderson cut a free-kick back for Stokes to meet first time, McCallum dropping on his low shot.
The half ended with lukewarm appeals for a penalty, Gray claiming the ball had struck Longridge’s arm as he attempted to turn inside the left back, but referee Barry Cook wasn’t interested in the slightest.
And the second almost began with a Hibs equaliser, Lewis Stevenson delivering a deep cross which was met by the boot of Stokes, now operating alongside Cummings up front with Keatings at the head of the midfield diamond, only for Ben Gordon to take his effort off the line.
The problem, though, for Hibs was a familiar one, how to find the key to unlock a well-organised and packed defence, something they’d struggled to do on a number of occasions this season. Too often they resorted to hopeful balls forward, the crowd’s growing anxiety, while totally understandable, adding to the tension when calm, cool heads were required.
The obvious danger was also that they might commit too many forward in pursuit of that equaliser, although as the minutes began to tick by that was a gamble they’d be forced to take, the Lions ready to pounce on any opportunity to hit on the break.
As if to underline that threat, it took a superb interception from McGinn to prevent Longridge’s through ball reaching Scott Pittman as the unmarked midfielder raced forward although Hopkin’s players also looked more than uncomfortable defending their narrow advantage as Hibs’ efforts became ever more frenetic.
Stokes, though, went close, the on-loan Celtic hitman getting the slightest of touches on Boyle’s low cross only for the ball to creep agonisingly wide of the far post before Darren Cole produced a terrific block as Keatings met Stevenson’s cutback.
But Hibs finally got themselves level with 15 minutes remaining, Stokes taking Cummings’ flick before engineering space for himself at the edge of the penalty area and then drilling a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner of McCallum’s net,
And Easter Road exploded three minutes later when Boyle met a clearance from a Hibs free-kick first time 30 yards out, the ball fizzing into the roof of the net.
The mood within the ground had totally changed in an instant, those fans who had been making their feelings known in no uncertain terms now right back behind their team.
Cummings almost added a third, squaring up Cole and hammering in a shot which came off McCallum’s chest before spinning to safety.
Hibs (4-2-3-1): Oxley; Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; Thomson (Boyle 68); McGinn, Cummings (Gunnarsson 90), Henderson, Stokes; El Alagui (Keatings 38). Unused subs: Virtanen, Fyvie, Handling, Dagnall
Livingston (4-5-1): McCallum; Halkett, Gordon, Cole, Longridge; Kakay (Currie 80), Fotheringham, Telfer (Knox 87), Pittman, White; Buchanan (Sheerin 77). Unused subs: Jamieson, Neill, Mullin.
Referee: Barry Cook