A GOAL alone would have constituted progress for Hibernian after what had gone before. That it produced a point was even better for the home team.
Hibernian 1-1 Dundee United
Scorers: Hibernian - Robertson (81); Dundee United - Armstrong (29)
But above all, the way in which his team played for the last half-hour had to be of solace to Pat Fenlon. Forceful, determined and most importantly working together with purpose, Hibs played easily their best football of the season so far during that spell.
After the match, however, Fenlon was subdued, perhaps even a touch bewildered. The cause: a first-half showing that according to some spectators was worse even than the 7-0 mauling by Malmo a few weeks earlier. Hibs were dreadful during those 45 minutes. Confused and demoralised, they could easily have been buried by half-time.
Gary Mackay-Steven was the home team’s tormentor in chief; Fraser Mullen his principal victim. The right-back was booked early on for a late tackle on the winger that could be heard at the back of the main stand: the sound was that of a butcher slamming a side of beef down on to a marble work top, and it was surely only the clumsiness of his challenge which spared Mullen a sending-off.
But while Mackay-Steven easily had the beating of Mullen, David Goodwillie remains some way short of his best and was therefore unable to capitalise. Grizzled centre-half Michael Nelson beat him for speed in one early exchange, and Paul Hanlon was also fast enough to snuff out a scoring opportunity for the striker later in the half.
John Rankin should have opened the scoring against his former club in the 25th minute, but shot over from a Mackay-Steven cutback. The goal was only delayed, however, and came three minutes later after Hibs had ventured too far upfield for their own safety. A ball over the top by Calum Butcher found Stuart Armstrong. The first touch was not the best, but Armstrong nonetheless steered his low shot past Ben Williams and into the net as he fell.
An already restive home support made their protests more vocal when Mullen was replaced by Ryan McGivern. Lewis Stevenson moved from left-back to right to accommodate the substitute, and it was unclear whether the booing was aimed primarily at that move, at Mullen for his display, or at Fenlon for having failed to start with McGivern and Stevenson as his full-backs.
McGivern was an unused substitute two weeks ago, and came off the bench a week later to play the second half of the derby – also for Mullen, who had been booked on that occasion too. It was curious, then, that the former Manchester City player should have been deemed unable to start, and perhaps more curious still that Mullen should not have been rested after his display against Hearts. Still, whatever the fans’ misgivings, Stevenson, though left-sided, went on to play rather well against Mackay-Steven. Indeed, the Hibs defence as a whole looked calmer the longer the game went on, and it seems clear now – if it did not before – what the starting back four should be for the visit to Kilmarnock on Saturday.
Having said that, it should be noted that United retained the upper hand in the second half until the double sending-off of Gavin Gunning and Kevin Thomson just after the hour. The Hibs player reacted angrily after the United defender’s foot had made contact with him following a clearance, and when both men raised their hands to each other the red card inevitably ensued.
Hibs profited in several respects from the sendings-off. There was more space, of course, but particularly so in central midfield, as the quietly effective Paul Paton was withdrawn into defence to take Gunning’s place. The excitement of the incident provoked the home support into getting behind their team, and increased the tempo.
Perhaps the crucial change was the fact that without Thomson, Hibs were less ponderous and more direct. But, having said that, it should not be forgotten that United would have scored a second goal – and surely secured the points – had it not been for Williams. The goalkeeper made a vital save in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk when his team were 3-0 down in the first half then went on to win 4-3, and his effort on Saturday with 15 minutes to go was reminiscent of that one. Ryan Dow broke through on the right-hand side of the penalty area, but Williams rushed out smartly and blocked his low shot.
By that stage Hibs had had their chances to get back on level terms, notably when a Liam Craig shot was tipped over the bar by Radoslaw Cierzniak. They finally took one three minutes after Williams’ save, when, following a free-kick, the ball ricocheted kindly for Scott Robertson, who fired a low shot from a little over 20 yards into the bottom corner of the net. It was Hibs’ first goal of the season, in their fifth match, and gave them their first point in the Premiership.
At the end, applause mingled with boos from the home fans. Their team had shown they could play a bit, but only after that grossly inept first half. The second-half recovery is therefore a fragile foundation on which to build – but that is surely better than having no foundation at all.