Given Hibs’ recent run, it was probably just what they needed to turn their fortunes around, a James Keatings shot which, according to Dunfermline boss Allan Johnston, was heading “ten to 15 yards wide” before clipping Nat Wedderburn and ending up in the Pars’ net.
A slice of luck it may have been, but there’s little doubt that strike, which cancelled out Kallum Higginbotham’s highly contentious first-half penalty which had left Neil Lennon’s players staring at a sixth successive match without a win.
Throughout that period the Hibs manager has argued, with some justification, that his side weren’t getting the breaks any team needs, for example, the two red cards shown to Easter Road midfield enforcer Marvin Bartley, both rescinded but too late to prevent damage, in the shape of dropped points, inflicted.
And once more it looked as if Lady Luck had deserted the Capital club, a Keatings free-kick which caught the top of Dunfermline goalkeeper Sean Murdoch’s bar; an Andy Shinnie cross which flashed through the danger area inches from the reach of both Keatings and Grant Holt; a Fraser Fyvie free-kick which had Murdoch at full stretch and then a Paul Hanlon header which came back off the base of the post.
Amid all this Johnston’s side had nosed ahead, referee Alan Muir apparently the only one inside East End Park who spotted the push as Hibs defended a Higginbotham cross which led to him pointing to the spot.
Even the official, revealed Hibs defender Darren McGregor, couldn’t give a clear explanation, all eyes having been on goalkeeper Ofir Marciano flapping at the ball which was then headed to safety by Hanlon although Pars midfielder Andy Geggan did end up on the deck.
McGregor said: “I’m never one for calling refs out, but I asked him and he said someone had pushed somebody. But he couldn’t identify who it was from us and who it was from their team. There was a bit of a stramash, the ball had come over me but went back out but he calls a pen. We are none the wiser to be honest.”
If Hibs were stunned, they could have been left all but beaten two minutes later, Gavin Reilly threading a pass through for former Easter Road hitman Farid El Alagui who, somehow, had remained onside. But he appeared as surprised as anyone scuffing a low shot which Marciano held with some comfort.
“I thought we were different class first half,” claimed Johnston. “We looked as if we were the team on top, You expect Hibs to create a few chances but we were compact and looked good on the break.”
He admitted, however, to being disappointed at his side’s reaction to being hauled level saying: “It’s goals that change games and their first gave them a massive lift. There was a huge deflection, it was maybe going ten or 15 yards wide but ends up in the net.
“We stopped doing what we had been doing and it was so frustrating to put in a second-half performance as we did.”
As Johnston pointed out, confidence coursed through Lennon’s players and they got a penalty of their own – and no doubt about it. Lee Ashcroft misjudged a ball over the top, allowing Shinnie to get goal side of him and resorting to bundling the midfielder over.
Holt, who had complained the previous week of having two clear cut penalty claims waved away despite him being man-handled, stepped up to send Murdoch the wrong way.
It looked enough to earn the three points as Hibs completely dominated the second half, their best 45 minutes of football this season according to McGregor, but in added-on time substitute Brian Graham was on hand to hammer home Shinnie’s cutback to put what the 3000 fans who had made the journey from the Capital would feel was a fairer reflection on the final scoreline.
It was significant that with Liam Fontaine fit again for the first time since the opening day of the season that Lennon opted for a back three, a formation which had served Hibs well in those early days with Dunfermline failing to cause too many problems for their visitors.
Shinnie, after a stuttering start to his season-long loan in Edinburgh, looked more like the midfield playmaker he was at Inverness Caley but, insisted, Holt, the key was the togetherness of Lennon’s squad, epitomised, he insisted by Keatings running 35 yards to put in a block which resulted in him limping off with a knee injury.
The striker said: “I said last week about people calling us ‘soft’. Well, we battered Raith Rovers last week and we bullied the life out of them today.”
The win sent Hibs three points clear at the top of the table as Queen of the South and Falkirk surprisingly lost, results which again underline the often ignored highly competitive nature of the Championship, every side capable of taking points off each other.
Next up basement club St Mirren and a chance to wreak some sort of revenge for their Irn-Bru Cup victory at Easter Road at the start of the month on a day when title rivals Dundee United, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and Falkirk all face each other. All focus, of course, will be on taking care of their own business but admitted Lennon’s assistant Garry Parker, having hit the summit, the management pair will be looking for their players to start to stretch their advantage.
He said: “At half time we did think it might be another one of those days. We didn’t think it was a penalty but you have to get on with it.
“We had good chat at half time and we got the bit of luck we needed with the deflected goal.
“We deserved that and from then on we controlled the game and deserved the win in the end. The manager had a go at them at half time, rightly so, but they are good lads and they went out there and showed what they are all about.
“We just want to keep winning games now and try to climb away at the top. That is our main objective as we keep striving to get promoted.”