After the shock return of the boyband, Neil Lennon sent out a couple of kids and they were able to reward him with something the more experienced Hibernian players hadn’t been able to achieve all season – a win over Raith Rovers.
Boyband had been the manager’s derisory description of over-hyped, under-performing Hibs teams of the past when he took charge at Easter Road and the manager was horrified to have to reach for the term again in the wake of his side relinquishing their grip on the Scottish Cup.
Fraser Murray, 17, and 20-year-old Scott Martin were handed starts with Sean Mackie, 18, being introduced from the bench. A match of minor importance for Hibs, it was heavy with significance for the Fifers who were trying to stay out of the relegation play-off spot, but James Keatings won it for the Leith team in stoppage time with a thumping left-foot free-kick.
Raith formed a guard-of-honour for the league winners – but not, of course, Lennon who was starting a two-game ban for his part in “square-go-gate”, the mass brawl against Morton – and from kick-off Hibs were able to see out the first 11 seconds quite comfortably, unlike in their cup semi-final against Aberdeen. Martin and Murray, similar in build, teamed up in the centre of midfield and the latter had the first opportunity, heading wide from a Chris Humphrey cross. Humphrey then plonked one onto Brian Graham’s head and the striker, still to convince the Hibs support, forced a tip-over from Pavol Penska.
Alex Harris convinced the support once. Then the winger got injured shortly after bursting onto the scene and has struggled ever since. He showed his deftness to collect a Keatings crossfield pass but then was easily gobbled up by the Raith defence. If Hibs were going to make the breakthrough, it looked more likely to come via Humphrey on the opposite flank.
Graham and Andrew Shinnie, skipper for the night, went close before Murray produced an even better effort, his left-foot thunderbolt just clearing the bar. It was a cohesive performance from the champions before some raggedness entered their play which encouraged Raith – who’d barely crossed halfway – to venture forward. Chris Johnston should have done better than shoot straight at Ross Laidlaw and then Declan McManus contrived a nifty effort from a narrow angle.
The breakthrough came in the 41st minute and the fleet-footed Humphrey was majorly involved. Graham spun round just outside the centre circle to send him zooming down the wing and his dinked cross into a box bereft of Raith defenders who’d been left choking on dust far behind was gleefully thumped home by Keatings.
Harris had drifted out of the match but at the start of the second half forced his way right back into it when he almost scored a spectacular own goal, his clearance just lifting over the bar and no more. In the next minute he was involved at the right end for Hibs, crossing for the bright Murray who should have scored.
In the next Raith attack Harris’s slightness was almost his undoing when as the last man he appeared to be out-muscled by McManus but the referee awarded him a free-kick, much to the irritation of the Fife fans.
Ten changes from Saturday enabled Lennon, watching from the first row of the stand and occasionally hollering instructions to assistant Gary Parker, to assess the depth of his squad for the next campaign. But he must have been impressed by the one man left standing, Efe Ambrose, whose cool interception sparked a move ending with a Shinnie bicycle kick before the defender stuck his head in the path of a Bobby Barr drive.
But he was powerless to stop Barr setting up Raith’s equaliser in the 67th minute. The wide man had led the charge for the Fifers in the second half and his cross similar to that of Humphrey for Hibs’ goal was met with the same response by McManus.
The Fifers had their tails up and suddenly Ambrose had lost his cool, losing out in a challenge in the box with the ball dropping to Raith’s goalscorer who almost bagged another but the floated shot struck a post.
Lennon ordered reinforcements – Marvin Bartley and Grant Holt – and the burly striker made an immediate impact when a pass from deep from Keatings drifted through to him and he lifted the ball over Penska.
Raith manager John Hughes sent on Ryan Hardie and he didn’t hang about either, rounding Ross Laidlaw after another long ball to draw the the visitors level. But Keatings was to have the last word.