Hibernian went from Friday night lights to Saturday afternoon shivers – a condition brought on by a cold, exposed ground and the trepidation of encountering a plucky little team who’d tripped them up in the past.
There was no point in Neil Lennon’s team beating nearest rivals Dundee United one week in front of big, full stands and the TV cameras if they were going to flop against doughty, dogged Dumbarton at their one-sided ground.
In the end – just – they didn’t. Kris Commons scored the decisive goal and a spirited Sons revival just came up short. After his team moved six points clear at the top of the Championship, Lennon admitted: “That was a big, big win. I knew this was going to be difficult, Dumbarton are a team on the up. They had a real good go and these are the kind of games you just have to see out.”
Last season, the Sons had a 100 per cent record against Hibs in the shadow of the Rock. This term Steve Aitken’s team have shown they’ve lost none of their peskiness, beating Dundee United and Falkirk to win their boss manager of the month and solidify their position as Scotland’s highest-placed part-time outfit.
Yesterday was due to be Commons’ last game as an emergency-loan Hibee. The spartan surroundings of the Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium were possibly not where he imagined his career panning out at the start of 2017 and he was clattered in the back within the first ten seconds. His second touch sent Martin Boyle on his way but the bumpy surface – or poor control – brought the break to an end. Commons’ third involvement was a rueful glance backwards following an overhit through-ball.
Commons’ next involvement was an exquisite back-heel but the Sons had the first chance when Garry Fleming cleverly set up Lewis Vaughan. His effort was blocked but the home side looked bright.
Commons’ goal came after he’d made a break up the left. Not at a great lick, mind you, but he kept the move alive. The ball was shuttled to the opposite flank where Chris Humphrey’s cross was blocked, as was a delivery by David Gray, but this time the ball dropped invitingly for Commons and from 16 yards he netted sweetly with his right foot on the half-volley.
Vaughan continued to be a perky presence up front for Dumbarton, sidestepping two men and giving Robert Thomson a clear sight of goal but Gray made a captain’s tackle destined for the career DVD. The next minute Vaughan had a go himself, Ross Laidlaw saving a shot aimed at the postage stamp.
The Sons weren’t out of the game by any means but Commons was becoming its dominant presence, telling Jason Cummings exactly the kind of run he wanted the striker to make, helping out at the back after a Daniel Harvie long-throw caused anxiety, then springing Cummings with a raking pass before the linesman raised his flag.
Dundee United had complained that the Sons’ win last month had been a wind-aided freak. Aitken laughed at this, recalling that when they hosted the Tangerines earlier in the season – winning again – the grass was supposedly too long. Yesterday, the Sons were staying in touch with Hibs with neat football, though surely it wasn’t going to be too long before they introduced Christian Nade, a man who loves scoring against the Easter Road side.
Hibs’ first chance of the second half again involved Commons, Lewis Stevenson forcing a stop from Alan Martin, and a minute later another deft pass from him released Boyle, the keeper again saving.
A second goal wouldn’t come and some slackness crept into Hibs’ play, encouraging the Sons. Vaughan had their best chance, dribbling into the box, but Laidlaw dived bravely at his feet. Then Fleming hooked over a cross which bounced off the top of the bar.
This was the cue for Nade. He had a couple of sniffs right away. Dumbarton were spirited, Hibs were slovenly and now they were taking a pummelling. Nade had the best chance, but couldn’t quite heave a leg into the right position.
Aitken believed that his team deserved a point. “To a man I thought we were outstanding,” he said. “We were up against the team who in my opinion will win the league but Neil made a lot of good comments as we were coming off the park about the way my boys played.”
Hibs hope to put this kind of excursion behind them. And they’ll be very glad, with Bonnyrigg Rose having put Dumbarton out of the Scottish Cup, that they’re not back at the Rock on Saturday.