Hibs welcomed in the New Year in style, blowing away Championship title rivals Dundee United with a performance which left the Tannadice outfit trailing them by four points.
In a blistering first half, Jason Cummings struck twice to take his tally for the season to 12 but it was new signing Chris Humphrey who the Tannadice outfit found too hot to handle.
The former Motherwell winger set up Cummings for both his goals, picking him out in a crowded penalty area and then leaving the United defence trailing as he raced away to supply the cross for his team-mate to claim his second of the game.
Those two efforts looked more than enough to see of their closest challengers, but there was even better to come with midfielder John McGinn, back after an ankle operation, claiming the game’s third goal only two minutes after taking to the field.
It was a match which, at least as far as Hibs were concerned, lived up to all the hype and one which left the vast majority of the bumper 18,876 crowd – the biggest in Edinburgh this season – in raptures as their opposite numbers made an early start for home.
Hibs head coach Neil Lennon had gone with a side loaded with attack-minded players and it paid off immediately. Humphrey had already left United defender Paul Dixon sitting on the seat of his pants – much to the delight of the vociferous home support – before the Capital side took the lead with only five minutes on the clock.
And Humphrey was heavily involved, poking the ball back into the danger area after Kris Commons’ corner was only partially cleared, his pass finding Cummings with the time only six yards out to take a touch and drill it under United goalkeeper Cammy Bell, who got a touch but was unable to prevent it rolling into the net.
It was only the fourth goal the Tannadice outfit had conceded since their 1-1 draw at Easter Road back at the beginning of October, but Ray McKinnon’s side were rocking early on, Tony Andreu’s back-pass almost intercepted by Cummings before Lewis Toshney got himself in the way of a trademark Commons strike which would have posed more than a few questions of Bell behind him.
Lennon’s bench was also packed with plenty of forward-going options and the sight of McGinn – missing for the last five games following an ankle injury – emerging from the home dug-out to stretch his legs was another cause for the home fans to get on their feet once again.
It took United fully 24 minutes to threaten Hibs’ goal, skipper David Gray happy to head Charlie Telfer’s cross behind with the towering Nick Van Der Velden at his back.
However, it mattered little as Hibs doubled their lead two minutes later with Humphrey again the architect, the former Motherwell winger taking Lewis Stevenson’s crossfield ball in his stride, his first touch taking him clear of Dixon and giving him the space to deliver a low cross to the front post.
And who else was there but Cummings, the 21-year-old prodding home from only a couple of yards out to make it four in his last four matches. It was as good a start as Lennon and his players had probably hoped for with United left chasing shadows at time.
The decibels within Easter Road went up again twice in the space of four minutes, the half-hour mark bringing a minute’s applause in tribute to former Bonnyrigg Rose player Shaun Woodburn, who died in an incident in the early hours of New Year’s Day and then for life-long Hibs fans Shaun McKinley, who passed away after a brave fight with cancer on Hogmanay.
United had looked nothing like a side which had put together an unbeaten run of 12 Championship matches to temporarily depose Hibs at the top of the table, decidedly second best to a rampant Capital outfit who’d got the bit between their teeth from the first whistle to leave Ray McKinnon’s side visibly rattled by their energy, verve, pace and movement. Indeed, they could probably have counted themselves a touch lucky to have been heading up the tunnel at half-time no further adrift.
Humphrey had certainly done what he’d been brought to Edinburgh for between now and the end of the season and, with Martin Boyle on the opposite flank, Hibs had a width about their play which many felt had been previously lacking while Dylan McGeouch and Marvin Bartley anchored the midfield to give their team-mates the freedom to flood forward at every opportunity.
If United had been rock-solid at the back up until this moment, Hibs had shown just why they currently boast the meanest defence in British football, the barrier in front of goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw such that he wasn’t asked to make a save in the opening hour of the game.
With that two-goal cushion there was no great onus on Hibs to force the game, happy to concede possession up to a point as they left United to find the answers to the serious questions Lennon’s players had posed with that blistering first-half performance.
As the minutes ticked by, they knew United would be forced to take more and more chances if they were to salvage anything at all from the game, Hibs able to wait their moment to hit on the counter attack which they almost did to devastating effect as McGeouch and Commons combined to set Boyle free. He rapidly made 40 yards before cutting inside only to see his shot blocked, Cummings leaving the loose ball for Humphrey, who struck it well enough but, on this occasion, Toshney was on hand to throw his body on the line.
The 2100 Tayside fans housed in the South Stand hadn’t had much to cheer but they greeted the arrival of new signing Thomas Mikkelsen in the faint hope the Danish striker – signed until the end of the season from Odense Boldklub – could somehow prove to be their saviour. But it was his fellow substitute Tope Obadeyi who caused Laidlaw his first problem of the game, rising to meet Toshney’s cross to power in a header, forcing the Hibs goalkeeper to throw himself to his right to push the ball away.
However, McGinn put the icing on the cake – and almost brought the roof off Easter Road – as he claimed a third for the men in green only two minutes after replacing Commons, who had been suffering from a heavy cold in the days before this match.
Scott Fraser inexplicably allowed McGinn the freedom to waltz passed him, the Scotland internationalist taking full advantage to slide the ball under Bell from a tight angle to send the home fans into raptures.
It was, though, no more than Lennon and his players deserved as they posted a warning that now they are back in pole position for the title they won’t be giving it away without one hell of a fight.
Hibs: Laidlaw; Gray, Hanlon, McGregor, Stevenson; McGeouch, Bartley; Humphrey (Keatings 84), Commons (McGinn 78), Boyle; Cummings (Graham 88). Unused subs: Virtanen, Fontaine, Holt, Shinnie.
Dundee United: Bell; Toshney, Durnan, Edjengule, Dixon; Murdoch (Mikkelson 75); Flood, Telfer (Smith 66), Fraser; Andreu; Van der Velden (Obadeyi 57). Unused subs: Zwick, Dillon, Robson, Spittal.
Referee: W Collum