THERE was penalty heartbreak once again for Hibs last night after a rousing night of cup football at Easter Road.
At the same Famous Five stand end where Hibs lost their Premiership status in a shoot-out versus Hamilton Accies, the first 12 penalties were all scored. However, United ‘keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak saved brilliantly from full-back David Gray, Hibs’ eighth penalty taker of the night.
John Rankin’s earlier miss was cancelled out when substitute Matthew Kennedy could not convert the chance to send Hibs into the League Cup semi-finals. Conor Townsend made the most of the reprieve and then with the pressure all on Gray, Cierzniak’s strong hand deflected the ball over the bar.
Finally, we had a winner, but the fact that Hibs were applauded from the field said everything about how their fans viewed the home side’s performance.
Paul Paton’s inclusion in the United line-up was noteworthy following the one game suspension imposed by his club after an incident in Glasgow involving Celtic goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska. But the ceaseless nature of events on the pitch meant the significance of the midfielder’s return became lost amid the drama of six goals from six different goalscorers inside the first 90 hectic minutes. Unsurprisingly, this hectic tempo was not sustained in extra-time.
Paton’s reintroduction to the fold was one of five changes made by United manager Jackie McNamara following the poor performance and result in Inverness at the weekend. All eyes were on the Northern Ireland player – including those of his international manager, the former United and Hibernian forward Michael O’Neill.
Paton committed the first foul of the evening after a late challenge on Liam Craig but was quick to offer his hand in apology. He later became the first player booked, after fouling Danny Handling on the edge of the box after 25 minutes. By then, the match had already yielded three goals. It barely relented thereafter. Hibs drew level on three occasions but United had just enough in the end.
From the away stand, where a healthy number of United fans were congregated in contrast to the sparsely populated home stands, could be heard choruses of support for their midfielder: “There’s only one Paul Paton”.
But such concerns were not toppermost amid the excitement of what quickly became a very watchable cup-tie. It was breathless at times.
Three goals were scored in seven minutes after United got the ball rolling on 11 minutes when Chris Erskine made Liam Fontaine look a bit foolish after gaining a break of the ball on the edge of the box. He nudged the ball past Fontaine on one side and then dashed past the defender on the other before scoring with a left-footed shot that swept past Mark Oxley into the corner of the net.
The much-changed United line-up included three teenagers. John Souttar, making his first appearance of the season, was one of them, while 18-year-old Aidan Connolly, son of former United striker Paddy, started in attack. Blair Spittal, also 18, who played in United’s victory over Dundee in the previous round, also returned to the starting line-up.
Hibs, by contrast, made only one change following their derby draw with Hearts – skipper Liam Craig came in for the suspended Dylan McGeouch. They managed to establish a foothold in the match after 16 minutes after a left-footed finish from Malonga that was perhaps even more sweetly struck than Erskine’s shot for the opener.
Former United player Scott Allan, who was jeered by the United fans after his perceived abandonment of their club, played Malonga in and the striker still had plenty to do to score. He found the accuracy required to beat Czierniak from a tight angle.
But it took only another two minutes for Hibs to fall behind again, and it was a goal Stubbs will know should never have been conceded. A Rankin through ball released Dow, who stumbled as he was trying to round Oxley. But he was quick to get to his feet again to cross for Connolly, who converted with a little help from Hibs defender Lewis Stevenson, who tried in vain to rectify matters.
Somehow this was the last goal of a half that continued to produce chances for both teams. On top of this was an enforced change for United – Nadir Ciftci replaced the injured Gary Mackay-Steven.
Hibs should have equalised again on the half hour mark following a sweeping move that saw Malonga cross for Jason Cummings, who scooped the ball over the bar. A last ditch tackle from Fontaine thwarted Dow while Czerniak tipped brilliantly wide from a Craig free-kick that looked to be headed for the corner of the net.
Referee John Beaton then ensured he was booed off at half-time by the United supporters when electing not to give the visitors a penalty after what looked like an illegal barge by Scott Robertson on Dow.
The second-half continued in much the same vein. Indeed, it was possibly even more open. United, though, always seemed to be able to find an extra gear despite some promising probing from Hibs.
From one of these ventures forward they equalised, with Cummings heading in from close range after Stevenson’s cross from the left in 55 minutes. But infuriatingly for their manager, again they contrived to fall behind again almost immediately. It was another messy affair from Hibs’ point of view.
Paul Hanlon had eventually managed to clear the ball from a corner after Erskine’s shot following another scramble in front of the Hibs goal. From the corner Dow, hardly known for his heading expertise, managed to connect with Spittal’s corner.
Again, Hibs rallied. Again, they equalised. Substitute Kennedy’s deflected effort landing in the far corner of the United goal.
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