The road has been bumpy for Hibernian recently but, by the end of this game, all connected with the Easter Road side expressed an understandable belief that things were back on track.
They made a faltering start at East End Park and, regardless of the mysterious circumstances of a penalty awarded to Dunfermline, they could hardly complain at going in at the interval a goal down. Come the second half, however, Neil Lennon’s men really got the bit between their teeth and played some of their most convincing football of the campaign to date to run out worthy winners and cement their position at the top of the Championship.
Considering that it has been a feature of Hibs’ current residence in this division that slumps in form have left them playing catch-up, there is a sense of contentment – but not complacency – that, having started with an imperious 100 per cent record in their opening five matches but failed to win four thereafter, they are back in pole position. Defender Darren McGregor went as far as to say: “If that’s our bad patch of the season, we’ll take it. We know that there’s so much potential in this squad.”
For 45 minutes, a return to winning ways seemed highly unlikely for McGregor and his team-mates. A lively and clever Dunfermline side had them looking uncomfortable with their direct approach and it was no surprise that the Fifers took the lead, even if the circumstances were a tad baffling. Match referee Alan Muir spotted something he didn’t like as Kallum Higginbotham swung a cross into the Hibs box and awarded a penalty that Higginbotham himself tucked away confidently.
“I’m never one for calling refs out, but I’ve spoken to Alan and he said he saw someone push somebody but he couldn’t identify who it was – so it’s up in the air and we’re none the wiser,” said McGregor.
This setback did at least jolt Hibs out of their languid approach but McGregor also indicated that Lennon didn’t hold back in making his frustrations plain at half-time. “Aye, there were a few choice words,” he admitted, “We know that, coming to places like this, it’s going to be difficult but I think we let our standards slip in the first half.”
The good old-fashioned dressing-down worked. Hibs surged towards Sean Murdoch’s goal and eventually the weight of pressure took its toll. Higginbotham gifted the ball in his own half and James Keatings sped off before unleashing a fierce shot that took a wild deflection from the helpless Nat Wedderburn en route to the back of the net.
More probing brought more goals, with Lee Ashcroft bringing down the impressive Andrew Shinnie in the box to enable Grant Holt to put the league leaders ahead from the resulting penalty award, and substitute Brian Graham rounded it off in injury time with a clinical finish from a Shinnie cutback. Small wonder McGregor labelled it their best 45 minutes of the season.
It all disintegrated spectacularly for Dunfermline after such a promising start, with Michael Moffat collecting a red card in the closing moments as frustration took over.
Higginbotham, who was central to their best and worst moments in this game, cut a crestfallen figure afterwards. “With us going in front and the first-half performance, I thought we were going to kick on,” he said. “But I gave the ball away in a sloppy area and they go on and score from that. That gives them a lift and seemed to knock our confidence.”