Neil Lennon lightens up as Hibs eke towards Championship success

John McGinn in action with Callum Morris. Pci: SNS/Ross Parker

John McGinn in action with Callum Morris. Pci: SNS/Ross Parker

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In an attempt to wind up the Dunfermline fans who had, he said, been giving him pelters all day, Hibernian boss Neil Lennon stood in front of them after the final whistle and raised aloft an imaginary trophy. “I was just laughing at them,” he said. In a spell when he has had little to smile about, it satisfied the mischief inside him, but he is unlikely to be completely gratified until he is able to get his hands on the Championship silverware for real.

Few doubt he will but he has had to wait longer than most anticipated and he admitted that the protracted shuffle to the finish line is beginning to wear on him as well. “We are dragging it out,” he said after yet another draw. “It is frustrating but we will keep going.”

John McGinn had given his side the early advantage, with a well-placed and powerful, low, left-foot drive, which left Dunfermline goalkeeper Sean Murdoch with no chance. That was in the 13th minute and there were opportunities for the capital side to build on that but, having missed openings their manager described as gilt-edged, they allowed their hosts back into the contest.

It came courtesy of a 58th-minute penalty, after Lewis Stevenson was penalised for a handball by the far-side linesman and Kallum Higginbotham blasted the effort beyond the diving Ofir Marciano. That left matters tied and while both teams will argue they could have netted another to take all three points, no one was clinical enough.

Dropping two points may have irked the Leith side’s head coach but the damage was minimised by the defeat of challengers Morton by Dumbarton. It leaves Hibs nine points clear of Falkirk, who leapfrogged Jim Duffy’s men into second place, with just five games remaining.

The impression Lennon had given during an outburst on Friday was that he is the man everyone is out to get. Whether he really had a bee in his bonnet – it certainly seemed that way – or whether it was a tactic to engender a siege mentality within the club and give them that extra impetus to get over the line in the Championship, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

But regardless of the motivation, the Hibs fans quickly let the Easter Road manager know that they were behind him and the match had only just kicked off when they first began to serenade him.

The home fans were not keen to play along and their response was a lot less complimentary, while the Dunfermline players showed they were far from inclined to help bolster opponents who had won just three of their last nine league games and by their own manager’s admission are making a bit of a meal of getting the job done.

Having gone behind, the East End Park side could have allowed heads to dip but instead they stuck to their task, foiling their guests’ forays forward, with Jason Talbot particularly impressive, while also trying to carve out goal efforts of their own. Callum Morris’s header was tipped over and then they almost capitalised on a Marciano mishap when Paul McMullan pounced on a poorly controlled pass-back, but the Israeli keeper regrouped in time to smother the strike.

“It was a pretty even game. There were a lot of good performances,” said Dunfermline boss Allan Johnston. “The players showed unbelievable character to come back against the team that’s top of the league. We’ve done that numerous times recently.”

Hibs edged possession, though, and should have had the game wrapped up early in the second half but Murdoch saved another McGinn drive before Brian Graham shanked a close-range opportunity and then Jason Cummings fluffed his opening a few minutes later.

Nicky Clark missed with a header at the other end and McMullan’s 80th-minute cutback was driven straight at Marciano by Michael Moffat, who should have done better.

After a tough few days, it was a testing afternoon for everyone at Hibs. Darren McGregor was able to play due to the club appealing his red card on Wednesday night, while the rammy that evening and comments since meant there was a spotlight on Lennon, who also had to contend with the disappointment of Paul Hanlon failing a late fitness test and forcing a rejig of personnel, with Brian McLean drafted in.

“Another blow! I thought Brian McLean did excellent,” said Lennon. “Very experienced and composed. Paul’s nerve problem flared up which is very frustrating because we had to change our plans. David Gray is not quite there yet with his nerve problems and Jordon Forster is out for four weeks, I don’t know why!” he added, making it all the more vital that they manage to get the influential McGregor off the hook and able to play when they head to Cappielow for what is sure to be a feisty contest next weekend.

“It should have been out of sight. We missed gilt-edged chances after half-time and I don’t know how we missed them. It seemed harder to miss. But I thought it was a good performance and I thought we were assured.

“Whether it was a penalty or not is debatable. He was a yard away and maybe his arm is in an unnatural position but it was harsh. If it was the correct decision then, in my view, it was one of the only ones [the referee] got right all day. With Morton losing it is another point gained but I’m disappointed we haven’t won the game when we were in total control.”

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