Hibs’ hopes of winning their Betfred Cup group are hanging in the balance after Neil Lennon’s players lost a dramatic penalty shoot-out in Dingwall.
After a no-scoring draw in which Hibs defender Darren McGregor saw a header smack back off the crossbar in the dying seconds of four added-on minutes, Ross County picked up a bonus point, winning 4-3 on spot-kicks as Steven Whittaker and Oli Shaw both saw their efforts from 12 yards saved by Staggies goalkeeper Scott Fox.
The outcome leaves County sitting on eight points at the top of Group D, four ahead of the Capital club. County only have one match left, against Arbroath, and Hibs two. But, if the Staggies win their final game, they’ll end up on 11 points while the most Hibs can now get is ten.
A further indication that Hibs boss Neil Lennon is taking the Betfred Cup group section as part of his team’s pre-season preparations came with Whittaker thrown straight into the action only six days after re-joining the club while Efe Ambrose also got a run-out for the first time following the unexpected and unauthorised extension to his summer break.
With two more matches in the competition to come – against Arbroath on Tuesday and Alloa Athletic next weekend – before the Premiership gets underway a fortnight on Saturday, Lennon admitted he’d be looking to ensure all members of his squad will have enjoyed a decent amount of game time before that point.
Lennon’s latest signing, Lithuanian striker Deivydas Matulevicius, made the trip up the A9 but was confined to the role of a spectator as he watched his new team-mates play for the first time.
The last encounter between these two sides saw County beat Hibs in the League Cup final, a fact quickly forgotten in the euphoria of the Easter Road club’s historic Scottish Cup triumph a couple of months later. Nevertheless, this encounter with the Staggies would give Lennon and his players an indication of where they stand as they prepare to return to the top flight after their three-year absence.
Hibs, with Danny Swanson floating around in the pockets behind striker Simon Murray, made an enterprising start, Lewis Stevenson’s long ball out to the left brought down by Swanson, who lofted it over the head of County defender Jason Naismith before feeding Dylan McGeouch, who saw goalkeeper Fox take his shot low down to his right.
Fox was in action again within a minute, having to look sharp as Murray, having drifted out wide left, cut in and unleashed a powerful right-foot shot which the goalkeeper held at the second attempt.
Sean Kelly came to County’s rescue, taking John McGinn’s cross off the toes of Murray at the back post before slack passes from McGinn and then Stevenson forced McGeouch into a diving header to put the ball behind. From the corner, Andy Davies rose to get his head to Kelly’s cross but Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano threw himself to his left to push the ball away.
It was developing into an entertaining match and Swanson’s hesitation as he moved onto Boyle’s cross following a surging run from the winger gave Tim Chow the split-second he needed to block his shot.
But there was a lucky escape when Ryan Dow’s cross caught the body of Stevenson as he rushed back towards his own goal, the defender breathing a sigh of relief as the ball crept inches wide of the target with Marciano caught flat-footed.
At the other end of the pitch, Boyle’s searing pace was causing Kelly all sorts of problems and another slicing run from him ended with Stevenson cutting in from the opposite flank to drive the ball into the side-netting.
Lennon brought a few laughs from the home fans sitting around the away dug-out as he managed to break his seat, turning to ask “What do I do now?”.
The game continued to fly from end to end, Fox saving a McGinn shot from 30 yards before County substitute Chris Routis headed over.
This may only have been Hibs’ fifth match, three of which were recognised pre-season friendlies, but it was certainly competitive, Chow picking up a booking for going in late on Ambrose, his skipper Davies having been similarly dealt with earlier in the game as he deliberately blocked a threatening Swanson run.
Hibs weren’t entirely innocent themselves, McGinn booked for a foul on Gardyne before Swanson’s thundering challenge left the same player in need of treatment and leaving referee Steven McLean with no option but to reach for the yellow card.
Swanson, making his competitive debut having been suspended for the opening Betfred Cup game against Montrose, was quickly removed from the play by Lennon and replaced by the teenage Fraser Murray.
However, for all the frenetic action, neither goalkeeper was finding himself over-worked with both defences nullifying the danger. Fox, though, was almost left red-faced when he allowed a simple take from a Boyle cross spin through his legs. Luckily for him, the ball slipped just the right side of the post as far as he was concerned.
That was as close as either side came to scoring, the travelling supporters claiming a goal as Brian Graham jumped with Fox under the County crossbar for Whittaker’s hanging cross but the Hibs striker had clearly fouled the goalkeeper.
Both sides were understandably beginning to tire, the players no doubt thankful that rather than go to extra time the game – and a bonus point – would be decided by going straight to penalty kicks.
Marcus Fraser did try to ensure that wouldn’t be the case, the Staggies defender stepping forward to unleash a powerful shot from range which was always going wide before Gardyne’s run brought another half-chance for the home side but, like everything which had gone before it failed to provide the breakthrough.
Four minutes were added to the regulation 90 and, in the dying seconds of the last of them, Hibs almost won the game. Shaw threaded the ball through for Boyle only for his shot to break off Fox and go wide, winning the Edinburgh side the first of two corners in quick succession, From the second of them, McGregor’s header smacked off the crossbar.
So on it was to penalties, with Michael Gardyne scoring the decisive kick for the home side.
Ross County (4-4-2): Fox; Naismith, Davies, Fraser, Kelly; Gardyne, Chow, Lindsay (Routis 58), Dow (O’Brien 73); Schalk, Curran (Mikkelson 6). Unused subs: McCarey, Van der Weg, Morrison, Tumilty.
Hibs (4-2-3-1): Marciano; Whittaker, McGregor, Ambrose, Stevenson; Bartley; McGeouch (Shaw 86), McGinn, Swanson (F Murray 77); Boyle, S Murray (Graham 68). Unused subs: Laidlaw, Porteous, Fontaine, Gray.
Referee: Steven McLean.