There was only one goal but that did not mean that this was a dull game. It was a contest that proved rewarding for the visitors and frustrating for the hosts. Most of all, it was also compelling.
Derek McInnes spoke afterwards about his first trip to Easter Road as Aberdeen manager, a low quality borefest. “It was 0-0, in front of about 6,500, bottom six and it was the worst game you have ever seen, between two teams with nothing to play for. It was drab. But now it is vibrant, Hibs are going the right way and we feel we are in a good place and ready to kick on, so it is good to see the energy and the passion from both sets of supporters and a lot of good players on show. It was pleasing to win what was always going to be a tough game for us.”
It was a hard fought win in front of over 19,000 but one that Hibernian feel they contributed to. In a encounter that was open and positive, it was Aberdeen who took the lead and, with Scottish football bogged down in the usual post international qualifying campaign navel-grazing, it was a goal to remind us that there is quality in our game. It was also a goal worthy of winning the match.
It came in the 37th minute when Aberdeen’s Kenny McLean played a perfectly-weighted and delightfully incisive pass forward from the middle of the park for Gary Mackay-Steven, who read it, burst through and drilled a low, composed strike past Ross Laidlaw.
At that stage, the game could have swung any way with both teams going into it full of belief and energy and intent. The home side were buoyed by the draw away to Celtic, while Aberdeen were attempting to protect their unbeaten start to the Premiership campaign and their position as joint leaders.
Three minutes in it was Hibernian pressing, but Efe Ambrose, up for a set piece just couldn’t quite get his head to the cross. The presence of so many green shirts at the top of the pitch was to become a familiar sight but it was their inability to do anything with their territorial gains that irked their manager, who is desperate to see his strikeforce step up and make a mark.
John McGinn showed cut and thrust and Dylan McGeouch was poking and prodding but the killer ball and pivotal penetration was lacking; crosses and efforts at goal were more wayward than the hosts would have liked.
“I’m frustrated,” said Hibs boss Neil Lennon. “I thought we were excellent but I’m disappointed with my forward players. We forced the game and had a very good second half but in front of goal we were poor. I need more from my forward players. I think that is the only source of criticism I have of the team. In terms of tempo, attitude, it was a great game of football.”
At the back Aberdeen were resolute and building on that solid foundation, where players were willing to make timely challenges, suffocate advances and marshal key men, they were able to hit Hibs on the counter and keep them occupied enough at the other end of the pitch to ensure they could not send forth the cavalry without fear of punishment.
Mackay-Steven, having his best show yet for the Pittodrie side, weighed in with more than his first league goal, he was also a bright spark of invention, on the flank and cutting inside, while young Scott McKenna added an attacking presence at set pieces as well as proving solidity in the visitors’ rearguard.
McKenna put Ross Laidlaw under pressure early on, as did Adam Rooney, but it was Mackay-Steven who was the biggest problem, forcing a save from the Hibs keeper in the 20th minute,
But in a game where the action raged from end to end Steven Whittaker came close with a glancing header and then combined with Vykintas Slivka in the 24th minute as the Lithuanian drove his shot off the post.
A competitive and feisty tussle, although Mackay-Steven had established Aberdeen’s lead before half-time, no-one was settling. Hibs pushed hard, forcing Aberdeen to defend deep but they were impenetrable.
At both ends there were determined tackles and organised defences and while Hibs huffed and puffed, and both gaffer’s switched things up, swapping personnel and shape, there was no way through.
Hibs tried to add width and brought on fresh legs up front but even with Simon Murray, Danny Swanson and Ross Barker on, the end product was still beyond them.
In the 75th minute Hanlon sent a header wide and Swanson’s took too long to get off a shot as the goal opened up in front of him in the 83rd minute.
Aberdeen have not lost on league duty in Leith since 2009, and when Swanson hit the byline with minutes left and fired a ball at goal, the way the players reacted as the ball squirmed free a yard from the line demonstrated why, with the visitors pouncing to clear.