Danny Handling went from hero to villain as ten men Hibs were sent tumbling out of the Petrofac Training Cup at the first time of asking by Championship title favourites Rangers.
The midfielder silenced Ibrox as he hauled Alan Stubbs’ side level after Lewis MacLeod had given the Glasgow team an early lead but the 20-year-old was sent packing 11 minutes from time, referee John Beaton judging that his rash tackle from behind on David Templeton merited a red card.
It was a harsh decision and one which left Handling’s team-mates with a tough shift as the first-round tie moved into extra-time, Rangers making their numerical superiority pay as Nicky Law curled home a delightful winner.
But while out, Hibs will certainly not be down with much for Stubbs to enjoy in his first competitive match in charge, his players refusing to buckle after losing that goal in 14 minutes and causing Ally McCoist’s Light Blues more than a few anxious moments.
Again, however, it was that lack of a real cutting edge which was to prove pivotal, Sam Stanton and Farid El Alagui both passing up decent opportunities to crank up the pressure on a Rangers side which found their own fans quick to criticise.
Stubbs will feel, though, that the goals will come and even in defeat he will most certainly believe his side have fired out a warning that they, too, will have a say once the league action gets underway this weekend.
It was just like the old days, Hibs against Rangers at Ibrox, but in a rather surreal setting, the first round of a competition the Glasgow outfit have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons, but an entirely new challenge for Stubbs and his players.
Although McCoist’s men had gone all the way to last season’s final only to lose to Raith Rovers, the fact this is very much the third cup in Scottish football was reflected in the stadium being way below half full.
A reminder of where Rangers once stood came in the shape of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd back in light blue jerseys, part of a side packed with experience with former Jambos skipper Marius Zaliukas in the heart of the home defence alongside Hibs fan Darren McGregor.
With Scott Allan still to come up to speed in terms of match fitness Handling was entrusted with that free role in the middle of the park, one of four players aged 20 or younger for Hibs while Paul Heffernan and Jason Cummings, still recovering from injury, were among those on the away bench.
Even so, while Stubbs has insisted he’ll happily go with the players he currently has should he be unable to add any new arrivals by the end of the month, his squad does look to be two or three short to cope with the rigours of an entire season.
Hibs hadn’t been to Ibrox in some 30 months following Rangers’ demotion to the bottom rung of Scottish football following their financial meltdown, the home side winning 4-0 that day. And Stubbs might have been worried about a similar outcome when McCoist’s players turned their early pressure into a goal, Lee Wallace’s cross finding MacLeod in acres of space, the youngster taking full advantage to drill a low shot across Mark Oxley and into the keeper’s right corner of the net.
Boyd had the ball in the net again but it had clearly hit his hand as he attempted to get it under control and Miller fired in a shot which Oxley, looking slightly uncomfortable, managed to push away.
But Stubbs had implored his players not to be knocked out of their stride by any setbacks, determined that they continue to play the open, passing game he’s demanding rather than panicking in adversity.
They did so without causing Rangers any great problems until McGregor managed to get the merest of touches to Alex Harris’s cross, taking the ball off the head of El Alagui, Jordon Forster nodding down the resulting corner for skipper Liam Craig to throw himself at it. Unfortunately for the midfielder Rangers’ Ian Black was perfectly placed on the post to divert the danger.
Nevertheless it was a moment for optimism for the 1000 Hibs supporters who had made it along the M8 although they’d be well aware that in terms of taking chances at venues such as this nothing has changed.
And that point was highlighted six minutes after the interval when Forster’s superb ball over the top found Sam Stanton all alone behind the Rangers backline. Stanton brought the ball down but his parting shot was weak and straight at Cammy Bell in the home goal.
While intent on seeing his side play with the ball on the deck, Stubbs has declared he also wants a work ethic, that each and every one of his players give 100 per cent as the starting point, that when they lose possession they immediately set about regaining it. And that saw Handling prevent a near certain second goal for Rangers, the midfielder tacking back more than half the length of the pitch to intercept Miller’s cross intended for the unmarked Boyd
But it was at the other end of the park where Handling was to prove even more effective, the 20-year-old the first to react when the ball went loose as Black attempted to chest down right-back David Gray’s cross, leaving the Hibs star to steer a low shot wide of Bell for only his third first-team goal.
Suddenly the mood within Ibrox changed and El Alagui had the chance to further anger the home fans, whose cheers had turned to jeers, when he met another Gray cross but could only hook the ball over. It was the same story minutes later as the ex-Falkirk hitman outjumped everyone to reach Harris’s corner, his header powerful but delivered inches off target.
But just as Hibs looked to be getting on top, Handling went from saint to sinner, crudely bringing down Rangers substitute Templeton from behind. The red card came at a crucial time, just as Hibs were dominating and Handling’s early exit appeared to galvanise Rangers who were screaming for a penalty when Templeton went down under Gray’s challenge, but Beaton waved away those claims leaving an extra 30 minutes looking increasingly likely.
And that became inevitable when Oxley stood big to save from Boyd after the striker had stolen in to meet Wallace’s cross, Beaton infuriating those in blue by failing to award the corner. Six minutes into that extra time Rangers were again left raging as Wallace went down under Gray’s challenge as he looked set to tap home before Oxley got down to smother a Boyd free-kick.
Rangers’ numerical superiority made them obvious favourites to win the right to face Clyde in the second round but Hibs were hanging in there, hoping for that one opportunity.
But it was hope against hope, Law clinching the match with a superb right-foot shot which curled beyond Oxley and into the far corner of his net, a cruel ending for Hibs.