St Mirren 2, Hibs 0: Bottom side stun Lennon's leaders
Hibs were run ragged by the Championship's basement club St Mirren, who ended the Capital side's 13-match unbeaten run and inflicted a massive blow to their title hopes.
The Easter Road outfit remain seven points clear at the top of the table but their closest rivals Dundee United – whom Hibs face at Tannadice a week on Friday – now have a game in hand.
And, on this showing, United boss Ray McKinnon will be losing little sleep between now and then, Hibs an absolute shambles, a shocking performance which would have had any watching neutral believing it was Saints who were the title favourites.
The Buddies simply outplayed Neil Lennon’s player,s who were unable to match their opponents’ energy, tempo and pace and simply incapable, it seemed, of stringing more than two or three passes together.
The Capital side has, of course, been badly hit by injuries, particularly in central defence but when they are able to bring in two defenders on the one day, Celtic’s Efe Ambrose on loan and Brian McLean on a short-term deal, that can be no excuse.
A chance to open up a ten-point gap on United ahead of that meeting on Tayside was again squandered just as were recent opportunities against Ayr United, Raith Rovers and Dunfermline although, at least, those games each brought the consolation of a point.
Two goals from Saints’ Cypriot defender Stelios Demetriou either side of half-time were no more than relegation-threatened St Mirren deserved, Lewis Morgan passing up the chance to add what would have been a well-merited third late in the game.
Lennon underlined his faith in Celtic outcast Ambrose, throwing the Nigerian internationalist straight into action only a day after he agreed to join Hibs on an emergency loan until the end of the season even although the 28-year-old’s last taste of first-team football had been a Champions League qualifier against Astana in Kazakhstan last July.
But McLean, snapped up as a free agent after playing in the S League in Singapore with DPMM of Brunei, had to settle for a place on the bench as Lennon made two changes to his side from the weekend.
Ambrose took over from the injured Liam Fontaine while Marvin Bartley was drafted in at the expense of Grant Holt as Martin Boyle partnered the prolific Jason Cummings up front.
Saints had started the evening eight points adrift at the foot of the Championship table but, buoyed by a victory over Ayr United at the weekend, Jack Ross’ side were lively in the opening stages. Stephen Mallan tested Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano with a low shot before sending a dipping effort just wide.
Marciano was the Easter Road side’s hero against Dunfermline as Lennon’s players hung on for a draw and he again came to their rescue getting down to push Kyle Magennis’ shot aside after John Sutton had cushioned a Mallan cross down into his path.
Hibs struggled to find a way into the match and were lucky not to fall behind as Magennis rose at the back post to meet Sutton’s cross, his looping header coming off the bar with Marciano beaten.
John McGinn’s cross, however, did cause a moment of worry as it missed the head of Ambrose by inches, forcing Saints goalkeeper Billy O’Brien to touch the ball away before he comfortably dealt with a long-range free-kick from Jason Cummings.
The respite was short-lived, though, Mallan spotting the space in behind David Gray and drilling an inch-perfect pass for Demetriou to fire a low shot past Marciano.
Saints were well worth their lead having looked much sharper than the league leaders, who were unable to match their tempo and were being over-run in the middle of the park where Mallan was running the show.
Lennon had cut a frustrated figure as he patrolled his technical area and his mood wouldn’t have been helped when a glorious chance to claim an equaliser was spurned two minutes from the interval.
McGinn picked out Andrew Shinnie – for once finding space to the right of Saints’ penalty area – and he laid an inviting ball into the path of Fraser Fyvie, who could do not better than sky it over.
If Lennon had torn into his players at Stark’s Park 11 days ago, you could only imagine he’d have done likewise during the interval, his side again in danger of passing up yet another opportunity to widen the gap at the top of the table.
Whatever Lennon might have had to say obviously fell on deaf ears as Hibs, as they had been against the Pars at the weekend, were caught totally cold on the restart, once again conceding within a minute.
The outstanding Mallan turned away from Bartley and found Demetriou, who cut inside Gray and fired in a low shot which zipped past Marciano and into the bottom right hand corner of his net, Lennon emerging from the away dug-out to throw his hat to the ground in total disgust.
Hibs couldn’t even take advantage when Saints were temporarily reduced to just nine men, Mallan and Cameron Smith onlookers after receiving treatment for injuries.
At that point, Cummings had the chance to test his short-handed opponents but, instead of launching the corner he was taking into the danger area, he attempted to pick out McGinn outside the penalty area, Lewis Morgan snuffing out that line of attack as Lennon turned away in total exasperation.
Hibs were completely all over the place, looking far from title favourites with Saints sensing there were more goals in it for them, a third almost coming as Smith flashed a low shot across Marciano’s goal and just wide of the far post.
Lennon’s side had carried no threat, other than that dreadful effort from Fyvie, so it came as little surprise when Holt replaced Bartley with half-an-hour to go even although the game already looked beyond Hibs, Stephen McGinn forcing Marciano to shovel a shot which bounced just in front of him round the post.
The 921 Hibs fans who had braved the roadworks on the M8 would have been thinking they’d be as well heading for home early when O’Brien pulled off a fantastic save to deny Boyle when Gray’s header had left him with a tap-in, the ball then bouncing off Holt to be grabbed by the goalkeeper.
It was a rare scare for St Mirren, who probably ended the night feeling a 2-0 win hadn’t quite done them justice – and you would have found few inside the Paisley 2021 Stadium disagreeing, a side which has spent all season looking up at the teams ahead of them enjoying a rapturous reception from their fans on the final whistle.
It was no more than they deserved. As for Hibs, they have to pick themselves up for Saturday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final against Ayr United at Easter Road and hope for a morale-boosting victory ahead of that trip to Tayside, one which has taken on even greater significance in light of this miserable display.
St Mirren: O’Brien, Irvine (Fjelde 62), MacKenzie, Davis, Demetriou, Magennis (Todd 85), McGinn, Mallan, Smith (Baird 90), Morgan, Sutton. Unused subs: Langfield, Webster, Storie, Loy.
Hibs: Marciano, Gray, Ambrose, McGregor, Stevenson, Bartley (Holt 59), McGinn, Fyvie, Shinnie (Keatings 69), Boyle (Graham 77), Cummings. Unused subs: Laidlaw, Crane, McLean, Martin.
Referee: E Anderson