Hibs bid to win the second tier title and earn promotion back amongst the elite of Scottish football no longer looks preordained after this defeat, first of the league season, to part-time opponents Ayr United.
A home victory looked certain when Jason Cummings fired in a terrific curling effort from 25 yards shortly after half-time. However, the game would turn on a red card shown to Hibs midfielder Marvin Bartley. The enforcer lunged in high on Ayr’s Jamie Adams and was shown a straight red card.
Seven minutes later Ayr were level through former Hearts man Conrad Balatoni before Brian Gilmour, who provided the assist for the equaliser, finished a Nicky Devlin cross to earn all three points.
It means Queen of the South go to the top of the standings. Though an unexpected interloper — Dundee United or St Mirren were tipped as the nearest challengers to Hibs — their current position as title contenders looks to have staying power. They’ve won six consecutive games and are unbeaten since Stephen Dobbie re-signed for the club, with a victory over Hibs in the BetFred Cup sparking that run. Led by their returning talisman, they’ve scored the most goals in the division and share the fewest conceded honour with their Easter Road rivals.
It sets everything up nicely for the clash at Palmerston between the two sides next week. While it’s too early in the season to have a distinct impact on the title race, it‘s a great opportunity for each side to lay down a marker. A Queens victory would underline their credentials, while Hibs could reinsert themselves as clear favourites with a win from their toughest game to this point.
“It’s a different test for us now. We have not experienced defeat in the league this year and that will test our character going into next week. But we have the squad for that and we’ll pick ourselves up and be good to go next week,” said centre back Paul Hanlon, who scored Hibs’ goal in the 3-1 defeat to Gavin Skelton’s side back in early August.
“Queen of the South is always a tough one, ever since we were relegated, that has never been an easy game, but it’s one to look forward to and shaping up to be a big game. We’ll be back and full of confidence and looking to get the win.”
If Hibs are to leave Dumfries back on top of the pile, they will need to regain the defensive solidity that went missing after Bartley’s red card. Despite the one-man disadvantage, Neil Lennon’s side still looked comfortable in possession and were under no serious pressure when Ayr notched two goals in the space of six minutes.
“I think the sending off changed things a bit, going down to ten men, but I think we should still have had enough to see out the game,” said Hanlon.
“The first one is a set piece and you never want to concede in that manner and the manager is always telling us that is where games are won and lost, so that is really disappointing.
“Then we have been caught with a breakaway, the boy [Devlin] does well to get a cross and there is a body [Gilmour] free in the box. These things shouldn’t happen. It is really disappointing because, up until those, I don’t think they had threatened too much.“