Hibs ignore the controversy to bounce back from disappointment and take control in league chase
While Ross County manager John Hughes smarted over the validity of Hibs’ goals, the Easter Road side headed back down from the Highlands well-satisfied with their afternoon’s work.
On the fifth anniversary of the Dingwall outfit defeating them in the League Cup final, the Leith side refused to allow them to jeopardise this season’s ambitions.
Responding quickly to Billy McKay’s 50th minute opener as Martin Boyle tucked away a controversial penalty just two minutes later, they then went on to grab the winner when substitute Kevin Nisbet returned to scoring form and sent a half volley past Ross Laidlaw with half an hour remaining.
Having accused Boyle of simulation in the awarding of the spot kick, the home side then screamed for offside for that decisive effort. The match officials ignored both pleas to give Hibs a vitally important three points and catapulted them well along the way to ending the season in third place for the first time in 16 years and earning the possibility of European football through to December, depending on how the Scottish Cup plays out.
They had prepared mentally for the magnitude of the encounter, refusing to minimise its importance and openly describing it as the biggest game of the season. Their game in hand, it offered them the opportunity to move six points clear of idling fourth-placed Aberdeen, with just six games remaining - five of them against the Premiership’s top teams post-split.
And while their ability to deliver on such high-pressure occasions has sometimes been questioned, they delivered in this one, against a team who have proved a tough nut to crack in previous meetings this season and who are in fighting form as they battle to avoid relegation.
The teams contested a goalless draw in the first head-to-head in Dingwall, while Hibs were scalped in Hughes’ first match in charge of County, at Easter Road, in December. They needed better this time.
But in the first half there were concerns that many of the frustrations that had pained them the last time they made the trip to Victoria Park were making a reappearance.
With plenty of territory and enough possession to unlock the door, they spent the opening 45 minutes chapping on it.
They almost made a glorious start, when Boyle intercepted a backpass. He was forced wide when through on Laidlaw but laid it back to Chris Cadden, who had arrived in the box. The wingback couldn’t find the target, though, sending his effort well over.
Jack Ross had left Christian Doidge on the bench last weekend, preferring to give Kevin Nisbet a start. This week roles were reversed as the Hibs gaffer believed the playing conditions were more suited to the Welshman, whose workrate and unselfish play offers plenty to the side, outwith goals.
He was his usual hive of industry up front but neither he nor Boyle could conjure up much in the way of cast iron chances, as the visitors failed to make the most of their possession, with the last ball, the final dig or the ability to time the runs all helping to keep things level.
The second half, though, saw a turnaround as the heavens opened. Whether it was the cold shower or the half-time words of their manager, that roused the players, there was a greater sense of purpose from both teams as they moved up the gears. The energy verged on frantic at times as play raged on breathlessly and passions began to surface.
The opener came just five minutes after the interval when County’s Jordan White headed on a hanging ball into the Hibs box and Mckay reacted, netting his fourth goal in four games.
The raucous celebrations had hardly died down when Boyle was grounded by an angry Alex Iacovitti at the other end of the pitch. County claimed it was a dive, Hibs refuted that but at first glance it did look soft. Boyle has no doubts as he slammed it home, though.
Immediately after that equaliser, Ross sent on Nisbet and it proved a shrewd move as the youngster, who had just seen his colleague equal his league goals tally for the season, and he was inspired to get his nose back in front.
Hibs appeals for a second penalty had been denied minutes earlier, as Boyle, who had been booked for a wild challenge on Leo Hjelde, again hit the deck. If the capital side were frustrated by the referee’s refusal to award another spot-kick, it was his decision not to book the player for diving that infuriated the home dug-out who had long-since cast him as the villain of the piece.
With emotions bubbling, the passions erupted in the 60th minute when Paul Hanlon sent the ball across the face of Laidlaw’s goal and, waiting gratefully at the back post, Nisbet directed it into the net. His first goal since January 11, it was to prove the winner.
It got Hibs back to winning ways after a triumphant four-game run had been sullied by losses in their last two outings.
By the end of the match, they had sent on an extra defender and were taking the ball for walks into the corners to repel a dogged County and safeguard their advantage. If they can see out the season in a similarly determined manner then the celebrations they enjoyed at the end of this match - a mixture of pride, joy and relief - will be nothing compared to the party they can enjoy for achieving what they set out to do when they kicked off the campaign.