What this match might have lacked in quality – as you might have expected in a scrap between the SPL’s two bottom clubs – it more than made up for in sheer excitement and entertainment.
The proverbial five-goal thriller, the pace was frenetic, the players to a man committed to the cause if missing a little finesse and the outcome was uncertain until the final blast of referee Alan Muir’s whistle.
But when the dust had settled and everyone had enjoyed the chance to finally catch a breath, Hibs has emerged victorious, with three precious points in the bag.
Easter Road boss Pat Fenlon would be the first to admit the Edinburgh club are far from out of trouble on the back of one result although the gap between themselves and the Pars has now stretched to four points, albeit the Fife outfit have a game in hand. However, the psychological boost for Fenlon’s players, battered and bruised from weeks of strife, could be immense. Not only was this Hibs’ first league win in ten, a run stretching back to October when they defeated St Mirren by the same scoreline, but the first time all season they’ve managed back-to-back victories, this one coming hard on the heels of that hard-fought triumph over Cowdenbeath in the William Hill Scottish Cup.
Again the Capital side had to battle all the way, forced to come from behind once more as they had a week earlier in Fife and demonstrating true grit as they thrust aside the disappointment of losing a late equaliser to immediately claim the winning goal.
While most connected with Easter Road will be at a loss to explain why it has come to this, the players, just as they did at almost the same stage last season, seem to have finally awoken to the perils of the situation into which they have floundered.
At long last, though, the penny seems to have dropped as defender Michael Hart admitted. He said: “When you get so low you have to climb out of it somehow. A club like Hibs should not be in the position we are in. But when you are you can either keep on getting beaten or you can get your head up and think we need to battle and get a result.”
Fenlon’s influence is undoubtedly beginning to show, Colin Calderwood’s successor having not enjoyed the best of starts to his Easter Road career, Hart agreeing that perhaps a month ago Hibs would have struggled to overcome the late blow of Liam Buchanan’s equaliser.
He said: “We have a bit more about us, we have put ourselves in this position and we are the only ones that can get us out of it. The boys are realising that and are digging deeper than we have before.”
Fenlon may only have been in the job a matter of weeks, but the Irishman will have quickly realised little is straightforward when it comes to Hibs. Having seen his side lose the opening goal at Central Park in just 15 seconds, he again had to watch as Andy Kirk rose unopposed to glance home Joe Cardle’s free-kick to put the Pars ahead.
It might have got worse had goalkeeper Mark Brown not got his fingertips to Martin Hardie’s free-kick but having finally managed to exert a period of sustained pressure, Hibs got their reward as David Wotherspoon returned Isaiah Osbourne’s blocked shot for Leigh Griffiths to slide the ball beyond Iain Turner.
The on-loan Preston North End goalie had already brought off a smart save in pushing aside Callum Booth’s early shot and he did so again at the start of the second half as Osbourne, back after a five-match absence, thundered forward to unleash a drive which the ex-Everton star matched.
Before the match Fenlon had expressed the hope that his players’ desire to win would exceed any fear of losing and he displayed his determination to secure all three points by throwing on top scorer Garry O’Connor for midfielder Wotherspoon with some 30 minutes remaining, giving Hibs a three-pronged strikeforce. And it appeared to have paid off when Booth charged forward before slipping the ball inside for Griffiths who, in turn, relayed it on for O’Connor to hammer high into the net to the delight of the massed ranks of travelling Hibbies.
Dunfermline, though, matched Hibs’ desire and in a late charge Booth was forced to take a Hardie header off the line before Buchanan found himself with time and space inside a congested penalty area to claim the equaliser. The Edinburgh-born hitman, however, hardly had time to celebrate as Hibs immediately reclaimed the lead, Griffiths wheeling and delivering a low shot which squirmed under Turner and into the net. The drama wasn’t over then, Brown pulling off a smart save from Buchanan with Paul Hanlon thumping the ball to safety before anyone in black and white could get near it.
Hibs might have had the chance to increase their lead – and calm their nerves – in the final minute when O’Connor appeared to have been brought down by John Potter, referee Muir thinking otherwise and booking the Easter Road hitman for diving.
It was a decision which left both O’Connor and his manager incandescent with rage, Fenlon spoken to by Muir for his touchline protests.
O’Connor, of course, has been at the centre of controversy for “simulation” already this season, being found not guilty by an independent tribunal after being accused of having dived to win a penalty against St Johnstone earlier in the season.
And Hart believes his team-mate now has a blackened reputation, insisting that on this occasion at least, he’d been the victim of an injustice.
He said: “I don’t know what reputation Garry has but it was a definite penalty. He is in there [the dressing-room] raging. The referee was in a good position to give it and he did not.”
Thankfully for Hibs, at least, the incident had no bearing on the final result, one which former Aberdeen, Livingston and Preston full back Hart believes can be used as a springboard by the Edinburgh side. Asked what psychological effect of two trips to Fife and two wins might have, he said: “Massive, it was our first league win in a long while, but that’s two in a row which shows resilience. We are scoring goals again although a clean sheet would be nice.
“But it’s progress, you saw the boys battling more for each other. We might have chucked it before when they equalised but we went right up the park and scored again which shows the character in the boys.”