It was the end of the road for Hibernian who hope they won’t be back at grounds like this for quite some considerable time. For Ayr United, occupants of the perfectly charming Somerset Park, it looked awfully like the end of the Championship.
After Hibs’ easy victory in the final away fixture of their top-flight exile and St Mirren’s thumping of Raith Rovers, the Honest Men’s spider silk-thin hopes of survival depend on them going to Kirkcaldy next Saturday and winning 5-0.
What would Ayr manager Ian McCall’s team-talk be? “Listen, I won’t need to say much. Miracles do happen, we know that in football. Look at Hibs. They’d never won the Scottish Cup for 114 years...
“We’ll have a go but it won’t be next week’s game and this one that gets us relegated. It’s been too many draws, home games when we should have taken more from them, only one point out of six against Dundee United when it might have been all six. If we go down we’ll aim to win League One and come straight back up.”
The 160-mile round trip to Somerset Park was going to be the last time – on league business at least – that Hibs would encounter terracing, tumbledown stands, one-sided grounds, majorette displays, couthie announcers, undulating pitches and all the other hidden delights of lower league football.
They played with an easy, relaxed air throughout. “They enjoyed that,” manager Neil Lennon said. “The shackles are off and it showed. It was a really polished performance.”
Ayr, though, looked petrified from the start. Despite winning four points out of six on their visits to Easter Road, the home team were staring into the black hole, needing to match St Mirren’s result to prolong their fate for one more week. At one stage of the season they seemed to be coping with life in the Championship pretty well, even climbing into sixth place, but after that October high they didn’t win again for four months.
In his programme notes McCall urged the home fans to shout loud to try and keep relegation at bay. The team would put everything into the game, he vowed, and through this joint effort safety could be achieved.
It may not have been the most scientific theory ever espoused, but the home fans made plenty of noise in the opening minutes although mostly it took the form on anguished cries.
In the third minute Daryll Meggat was short with a header back to Greg Fleming, Jason Cummings almost taking advantage.Rather than get on the case of their nervous players, though, the faithful decided to aim some jolly abuse at Grant Holt. For collectors of curios this game promised an intriguing sideshow: Holt vs Gary Harkins to decide who’s best at doing least. Neither man likes to charge around busting a gut and really there’s no need if you can tether the ball and keep it close to your impressive frame, almost hiding it.
Hibs’ next chance fell to Holt. He let Martin Boyle do all the work with a long run which began speedily and ended mazily.The Englishman accepted his pass but screwed the shot wide. Holt wasn’t bothered about that, nor the cat-calls he got for complaining to the Ayr dugout about the strength of Meggat’s tackle. Meanwhile Harkins struck a free-kick against the Hibs wall.
The breakthrough came in the 27th minute. John McGinn, scorer of what he rated a career-best goal at Somerset earlier in the season, looked like he was winding up for another long strike before deciding to dart for the touchline to cross for Cummings to head his 22nd goal goal of the season and one of the simplest.
The second was only three minutes away. Holt picked up the ball on the right side and giving a pretty decent impression of a flying winger, fired low to the back post for another easy goal, Boyle netting.
Early in the second half even the most vociferous of the stand-ites were quiet. They knew St Mirren were well ahead and they guessed their team were doomed. But Saints weren’t just winning, they were dragging Raith closer, and a 30-yard shot from Meggat, tipped over by Ross Laidlaw, gave them hope.
But Hibs weren’t finished scoring, with substitute James Keatings neatly slipping the ball under Fleming and then Cummings netting with his right, a collectors’ item. Ayr’s supremely difficult task just got nigh-on impossible again.