IT WAS one stroke of luck that took Paul Heffernan to Hibernian on the last day of the transfer window, and another that allowed him to give his club the lead in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. A
fter that, however, there was nothing fortunate about the result for the home team, who fully merited the draw at the end of a game in which for long stretches they were the better, more intelligent team.
Kilmarnock’s surprising decision to let Heffernan go allowed Pat Fenlon to recruit a striker who is not only a keen predator himself, but also a player who stretches the game by linking up well with his midfield. When Hibs were most competitive in the middle of the park last season, it was usually because Jorge Claros and Tom Taiwo were performing well defensively. Now they are more creative in central positions, with Kevin Thomson epitomising the improvement.
From the moment Heffernan gave his team the lead until James Forrest’s equaliser an hour of playing time later, Hibs were more composed. They frustrated Celtic into making a number of unforced errors – four passes went directly out of play in one ten-minute spell in the second half, for example – and remained well organised. It was significant that they only conceded when Ryan McGivern was waiting to come back on to the field after treatment for a knock.
Having said that, the outcome might well have been different had Kris Commons converted a couple of early chances. He shot wide then shot over either side of the quarter-hour mark, and then midway through the half chipped over the bar after being put through on goal by a long ball from Virgil van Dijk.
By that time, however, Heffernan had struck. Replays showed the Irishman was in an offside position when Thomson beat Brown to the ball then passed it forward, but Heffernan strode on confidently to stroke it past Fraser Forster.
Commons went off injured, to be replaced by Forrest, and for the rest of the half it looked only a matter of time before the champions equalised. But Anthony Stokes shot wide once, then shot wide again after Ben Williams had blocked a Georgios Samaras shot with his legs. And when the Hibs goalkeeper was removed from the equation three minutes before the break after Forrest skipped round him, Ryan McGivern was on hand to block the shot from Teemu Pukki.
If those key incidents from the first half give the impression that Celtic were well on top, the reality after the break was rather different. Once they had dealt with an early scare – Michael Nelson clearing at the feet of Samaras after Williams had blocked a Beram Kayal shot – Hibs looked increasingly confident of holding on to their lead.
McGivern and Liam Craig were the only players on either side to be booked, with the former going in late on Darnell Fisher, the English teenager who was making a promising competitive debut at right-back in the absence of the injured Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig. Soon after his yellow card, McGivern had to leave the field following treatment, and while he was awaiting permission to return, Forrest struck.
Cutting in from the right to take the ball past Craig, the winger finished superbly, curling a shot with the outside of his right foot beyond the partially unsighted Williams and into the far corner of the net. With 15 minutes still to play, the equaliser sparked a crescendo of pressure from Celtic, as Stokes, Scott Brown and Forrest again all had shots either off target or saved.
Failure to convert that late pressure into victory left Celtic frustrated and Hibs relieved, but on reflection the final score has to be relatively satisfactory for both teams. Neil Lennon’s side remain unbeaten in domestic competition and have stretched their lead at the top of the table thanks to Partick Thistle’s win in Inverness yesterday, while Fenlon’s are now looking like genuine top-six material.