HIBERNIAN navigated past one of the toughest tests in the Scottish Championship as they survived a late Raith Rovers fightback and almost nine minutes of time added on to ruin the hosts’ previously unblemished record at Stark’s Park.
The away side remain in Rangers’ rear mirror as the gap at the top of the second tier falls to five points – with Rangers travelling to St Mirren today – thanks largely to a couple of moments of football genius from John McGinn and Jason Cummings.
Hibs looked comfortable until Jon Daly reduced the deficit midway through the second half, after which Hibs struggled to get out of their own half as Raith looked to preserve their 100 per cent home record.
Despite being made to sweat for the three points, manager Alan Stubbs was delighted with how his team stood up to the challenge.
“We were excellent and moved the ball really well in the first half, but it became a bit scrappy after the break.” said Stubbs. “There were too many stoppages and it gave Raith a foothold to launch balls into the box. They got a goal but I thought we were very resilient. We are a good footballing side but, at times you have to defend well, and I honestly believe we would not have won that match last season.”
Raith expected Hibernian to come at them and planned accordingly with the industrious Ross Matthews starting in place of the more languid Ross McCord in the centre. However, there is little planing which could legislate for the quality of the away side’s opening goal.
After Dominque Malonga was crowded out, John McGinn took control of the loose ball 25 yards out and arrowed an unstoppable effort which crashed into the back of the net via the inside of the post.
Though the second goal may have owed a lot to an error from Lewis Toshney, who got caught under Mark Oxley’s punt forward, it shouldn’t detract from the quality of Cummings’ play. The striker eased away Toshney before killing the long pass and coolly lifting his finish over the advancing Kevin Cuthbert.
A criticism of Hibs this season has been their failure to win many matches at a canter, at least not with the same consistency to which Rangers have, and they allowed their hosts back into the game when Jason Thomson pinged a cross to the back post and Jon Daly headed home.
Raith could then have been level two minutes later. Mark Stewart squeezed the ball through for Craig Wighton, but the young substitute was stopped dead in his tracks by a crunching Lewis Stevenson challenge. Regrettably, the action left Wighton requiring a stretcher to depart the field of play only 13 minutes after he’d taken to it.
As Raith piled on the pressure, Hibs were fortunate to escape a strong penalty claim when Stewart’s header across was directed goal-ward by a overhead kick from Daly. The ball struck the arm of Paul Hanlon, but referee George Salmond ignored the protests. The whistler then adopted the same stance when Daly appeared to be barged into the back by Liam Fontaine before Grant Anderson took a tumble under the attentions of Darren McGregor.
“The players are adamant [the handball] was a penalty,” said Rovers boss Ray McKinnon. “I don’t like criticising officials, but I couldn’t understand some of his decisions.”
The treatment of Wighton meant a lengthy added-on period in which both teams had great chances. Cummings brought out a terrific save from Cuthbert, before Fontaine retained two points for his side with a header off the line from former Easter Road midfielder Scott Robertson’s lofted shot.