Buried beneath the headlines about off-field rammies, missed handshakes, apologies, agendas, refereeing decisions and the growing number of draws, there is one crucial fact. That is that Hibernian are edging closer and closer to the Championship title.
Had they managed to turn even a fraction of those stalemates into victories, the celebrations, along with plans for their return to the Premiership, would already be well under way. They have now racked up four draws in the last five games, to take the tally for the league season to 13 in 32. But, while those returns are forcing everyone at Hibernian to be patient, few believe that they will be denied another trophy and promotion.
“We are the most frustrated of all,” said midfielder John McGinn, pictured, who has been consistently brilliant for the Leith side on their sojourn through the season. “We know what we are capable of and we are missing stupid chances and giving away goals. It’s amateur stuff at times. But we are still nine points clear at the top. We’ve not lost. I think last season, out of those 13 draws, half of them might have been defeats. So we have progressed. We are crawling over the line but we’ll get there.”
Manager Neil Lennon will be relieved when they do. He has been under pressure to deliver since replacing Alan Stubbs in the summer and the tension intensified as the results fell short of his demands, while the brawl with Morton a couple of weeks ago shone a spotlight on behaviour.
Add to that what he acknowledges may be a touch of paranoia over refereeing decisions going against his men. While some have been overturned on appeal, that simply galvanises his belief that there is an agenda.
McGinn played down those suggestions but he does believe that mistakes have been made, insisting that if the handball penalty award which went against team-mate Lewis Stevenson at Dunfermline last weekend was justified then Morton’s Mark Russell should have been punished in similar fashion on Saturday.
“We are obviously aggrieved with decisions,” said McGinn. “I don’t think there is any agenda against us. The refs try their best. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong. I spoke to the referee [Bobby Madden] and he said [Russell] was too close. But it was the exact same thing that happened last week. All we want is consistency. If we got that, we would have gone on to win the game. But a team of our quality shouldn’t be relying on penalties.”
The build-up to the match had been dominated by concerns that any residual ill-feeling from the most recent meeting in Leith would boil over. Both clubs and managers are still in the dock, a disciplinary hearing looming on 20 April, and they moved to quell fears of a repeat.
But that did not mean that Lennon and his players would be treated to a warm welcome from the Morton punters, who goaded the Hibs boss and booed players such as Jason Cummings and Darren McGregor throughout the game. The defender had seen the red card he picked up for an alleged head butt on Kudus Oyenuga rescinded, allowing him to feature and, while Cummings had the perfect response to his treatment by the home crowd, McGregor tarnished his display.
Draws aside, Morton are a major factor in Hibs’ ongoing wait for the title. A tenacious group, with a manager who has organised them well and brought out the best in his squad, they went at Hibs on Saturday. They made it clear that there would be no procession to all three points and, while Hibs had the better chances to win the game, they were not clinical enough.
The penalty shout came in the 26th minute but, having been denied the spot-kick after McGinn’s perfect diagonal pass picked out Martin Boyle and his ball into the box was blocked by the raised arms of Russell, the visitors had to wait until the 34th minute for the opener. It was the one occasion when they showed the required composure in front of Mark Gaston’s goal and they got their reward. McGregor’s lengthy headed clearance was pounced on by Cummings, who rounded Thomas O’Ware and flashed a decisive angled strike into the far side of the Morton net.
But that lead was squandered in the 66th minute when McGregor’s rash challenge on Jamie McDonagh, who had only just come on as a substitute, made the Morton player tumble to the turf and gifted his team a spot-kick.
Fellow sub Lawrence Shankland took the penalty and sent Ofir Marciano the wrong way to level.