A MATCH which began in the tamest of fashions ended in a flurry of activity last night as Hibernian went back into second place thanks to a late goal from Paul Cairney. For long enough the game had threatened to end without a goal and almost without incident.
Scorers: Hibernian - Cairney (82)
Bookings: St Johnstone - MacKay (sent off), Wright, Miller; Hibernian - McGivern, Hanlon, Cairney, Taiwo
But, in a frenzied closing ten minutes, St Johnstone had a penalty saved, lost a goal, had their manager sent to the stand, one player carried off and another sent off.
Hibs arguably merited no more than a point on the balance of play but they had a decided edge when it came to keeping their composure. And, after losing to Aberdeen at the weekend having been well on top, they can argue that this
result evened matters up.
Although the teams began the night in sixth and third places in the SPL, both knew that a win would take them to the top of the table provided Celtic lost at Hearts. By the time this game kicked off, however, the champions were already a goal up at Tynecastle, a fact which perhaps contributed to the subdued start from both sets of players.
Even so, if that symbolic prize of going top of the table was no longer on offer, at least St Johnstone knew that, no matter the result in the evening’s other match, victory would lift them above Hibs and into second place. And, for Pat Fenlon’s side, the need to get back to winning ways after two successive defeats was surely incentive enough.
In the continued absence of James McPake, the Hibs back four had its now familiar look, with Ryan McGivern partnering Paul Hanlon at centre-half, Lewis Stevenson slotting in at left-back and Alan Maybury on the right. It is a defence which has looked unsure of itself in some recent games, but in a soporific first half-hour St Johnstone did next to nothing to put any pressure on it. Two or three hopeful balls over the top for Gregory Tade to run on to were as creative as it came from the home team during that spell, and only once, when he used his height to get the better of Maybury, did the Frenchman look like causing any trouble. Still, minimally effective though those attacks proved, they were at least more positive than anything Hibs could muster.
It wasn’t that Fenlon’s team were sitting back too much, just that when they did get into their opponents’ half they were able to do very little with the ball. With Eoin Doyle playing wide on the left and Paul Cairney more centrally, Hibs had the numerical advantage in midfield, but too often that meant Leigh Griffiths was isolated up front. The striker worked hard to get involved, but too often he had to drop back into or at least close to his own half With less than ten minutes of the first half to go, Tade at last managed to create space on the edge of the box only to be brought down by
McGivern, who was booked for the offence. Dave Mackay’s free-kick was deflected over the bar for a corner, which came to nothing, but the attempt at least signalled the start of a spell of sustained St Johnstone pressure.
Minutes later Steven MacLean was almost through on Ben Williams, only to be denied by a timely block deep in the box from Maybury. Then, just before the break, Hanlon followed Maybury into the referee’s book, also for a foul on Tade. Liam Craig’s free-kick from more than 25 yards out took a deflection and crashed back off the crossbar, bringing the half to an end which promised better to come after the interval.
St Johnstone kept up the pressure when the game got started again, and a ball down the left channel found Tade in the clear. For a split second the volley looked on, but the pass drifted too wide. Forced to delay his shot, Tade was at a tight angle, and could do no better than blast it wide of goal.
Rowan Vine was next to have a scoring attempt, from a knockdown by Murray Davidson, but his shot was blocked. After that busy opening from the home team, Hibs came more into the game. A free-kick from the right by Griffiths skidded teasingly into the box, but no-one could get a touch to divert it out of its path straight to Alan Mannus in the St Johnstone goal.
The game had become far more open, with both sides increasing the tempo, but there had still been very little to really worry either goalkeeper. MacLean did get a shot on target from a Craig cross, but Williams fell to his left to make a simple save. The Englishman did the same two minutes later from another Vine shot, and it was still unclear how either side might make the difference and seize the lead. Fenlon then opted for a change, bringing young striker Ross Caldwell on for Doyle, and moving Cairney out to the left. It was a switch to 4-4-2, but a cautious one, with the substitute dropping back whenever Hibs lost possession.
First Nigel Hasselbaink and then David Robertson came off the bench as St Johnstone, too, tried to shake things up – and with ten minutes left the former had the perfect opportunity to make the difference when his team were awarded a penalty. David Wotherspoon conceded it, tripping Mackay just inside the area after having had a nibble on the same player a yard or so outside. Hasselbaink struck the penalty solidly, but Williams saved well – and was also back on his feet immediately to save another shot from Craig. The relief of that double save injected new life into Hibs, and within two minutes they were ahead.
Griffiths did the initial damage by threading a clever path into the pass of Cairney, and although the midfielder failed to strike his shot cleanly, he got enough on it to force it past Mannus, who got a hand to the ball but could not prevent it from squirming into the left
corner of his goal.
By that time St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas had been sent to the stand, apparently because of something he said after the penalty. Worse followed for the home team when Robertrson had to be stretchered off after a collision, and Mackay was shown a red card for violent conduct towards Griffiths. It made for a
despondent end to the evening for the home team, and a conclusion which sets Hibs up nicely for their Scottish Cup derby on Sunday.