What looked like ending as another miserable Saturday for Hibs took a dramatic twist to leave Alan Stubbs players no worse off than they had been 90 minutes earlier.
The Easter Road side were staring a fifth straight league defeat in the face, their fans well aware that Falkirk, rivals for that all-important second place in the Championship – given that Rangers have all but tied up the title itself – were two goals to the good in Dumfries.
But a late strike from former Bairns striker Farid El Alagui allied to Peter Houston’s side conceding two goals – the second deep into injury time – did, at least, bring a measure of relief to the Capital club.
Today, they stand in exactly the same position, six points behind Falkirk but with three games in hand to claw back that advantage, the first of which comes at home to Livingston tomorrow night.
However, Hibs boss Alan Stubbs’ delight at seeing his players claim that late point was tempered somewhat by the feeling that, had it not been for a huge blunder by referee Craig Charleston and his assistant Douglas Potter, his side could already have made inroads on the Bairns’ lead.
Ahead through Jason Cummings’ 21st goal of the season, the striker returning to the ground where he had broken a seven-match drought with a double for Scotland’s Under-21 team, Hibs were comfortably in control, St Mirren barely able to get near goalkeeper Mark Oxley never mind test him.
Even when Stuart Carswell’s header looped towards the unmarked Rocco Quinn inside the six-yard box there appeared to be no danger, the Buddies’ frontman clearly offside. But somehow Potter failed to spot that infringement, the assistant standing rooted to the spot, his flag by his side as he neither indicated he thought a goal had been scored or that the player was offside.
The explanation, apparently, was that it was Hibs midfielder Liam Henderson’s head which had directed the ball back towards his own goalkeeper, a view at odds with just about everyone inside the Paisley 2021 Stadium.
Stubbs was forced to bite his tongue for fear of falling foul of the SFA, but his frustration and anger was clear for all to see, initially pleading at the start of his after-match press conference: “Don’t ask me about the referee, please, please, please,” the prompt, naturally, for the first question: “What did you think about the ref?”
And when it was put to him that Quinn had looked “miles offside”, Stubbs was again reluctant to become embroiled in a savaging of the officials, replying: “I think probably the best way for me to try to work round it is to say ‘I will let you talk about it because it was so obvious’.”
But, after revealing “the player that was supposed to have headed it back was not that player” and that “I will cut it short there,” Stubbs became more expansive as he spoke of the impact he felt that blow had on his side, particularly given their recent run of results.
He said: “You could tell by the players’ reaction how disappointed they were with it. They felt aggrieved, I think that was pretty obvious. I don’t want to be standing here post match talking about a decision that potentially could have lost us the game because at 1-0 we were in control. I did not see us under any real pressure but before you knew it, out of the blue, it was 1-1 and that shouldn’t have been the case.
“The goal galvanised St Mirren, it gave them a bit of impetus. At 1-0 they were looking for an opportunity to get back into the game and the one thing I don’t want to happen to let them back in happened.”
Saints boss Alex Rae admitted he believed the goal to be offside although he revealed Quinn had told him he felt “one of their players got a flick on it.”
There certainly was a resurgence from his side after the interval, the players instructed to “get in the faces” of their opponents and it brought a reward when Lawrence Shankland drilled a low shot across Oxley and into the far corner of the net.
If Stubbs was disappointed with the officials for Saints’ first goal he was, he admitted, even more so at the ease with which the Buddies had engineered that opening. He said: “A throw-in from the touchline should not come into the feet of a striker in the box without any protection. We should have done better.”
Shankland’s strike appeared to rock Hibs, Rae’s players taking an obvious lift from it as they sought what would have been a match-winning third goal, Stephen Mallan and Callum Gallagher both testing Oxley while, at the other end, Anthony Stokes, having another of those games where he flitted in and out of the action, might have done better than rifle a shot straight down the throat of Saints goalkeeper Jamie Langfield.
Faced with yet another potentially-damaging defeat, Stubbs went for broke, throwing on both Chris Dagnall and El Alagui to end the match with four strikers, a gamble which paid off when, with less than two minutes on the clock, Stokes supplied a clever pass for El Alagui to stroke home.
“Going with four strikers showed our intent,” insisted Stubbs. “I told the players to never doubt their ability. They showed a lot of character because when you concede the sort of goal that was given it can have an effect on the team.
“They kept going and, towards the end, I think it would not have been a surprise had we got a winner.”
While Falkirk also dropping points would undoubtedly be welcome, Stubbs was adamant he’s focused only on his side, saying: “Their results do not concern me. Our main concern is performing better and I have to say that compared to the Raith Rovers game this was a better performance.
“It was a step in the right direction. We’re going to be in the play-offs – there’s no doubt about that – but we want to finish as high as possible and for all that’s gone on in the last month it’s still in our hands.”