The sight of Neil Lennon with arms folded at the edge of his dugout shortly after kick-off satisfied one query that had been hanging heavy in the air – would the Hibernian manager turn up or not?
Another question could only be answered at the end of what proved 90 – and more – absorbing minutes. Which Hibs would turn up? Was it the outfit who fell so limply to rivals Hearts on Wednesday, causing Lennon to speculate about his own future, or was it the team that has given champions Celtic a run for their money while also beating Rangers twice at Ibrox this season. Well, how about both of them – and that’s in the opening-half alone.
The same applied to the second half when Hibs retrieved a draw thanks to James Maclaren’s hat-trick after conceding two goals to fall 5-3 behind in front of the disbelieving home fans. Lennon had left his post by the end – but only temporarily. He was sent to the stand for running out on to the pitch following Maclaren’s last-gasp equaliser.
Jimmy Nicholl, the Rangers interim manager, has seen a lot in his long, distinguished carer. Surely, however, he has never witnessed or played in a game like this. The 61-year-old might be confused about how he should feel as he makes way for Steven Gerrard. He knows scoring five times away from home and still not winning is a sin and yet Rangers, who had Jason Holt sent off for a second bookable offence when tugging back John McGinn with seven minutes left, deserve credit for their recovery from 3-0 down.
However, there will be deep frustration at failing to hold out from such a strong position. Rangers Hibsed it after Hibs had Hibsed it if you get the drift. Rangers’ failure to secure all three points exposed the truth of their own fragility.
As for Hibs, where do you want to start?
A pulsating beginning suggested Lennon had drawn the reaction from his players he wanted following some close to the bone post-derby complaints. Hibs needed to win by six clear goals to guarantee leapfrogging their opponents. From the way they were going at one stage they seemed intent to reach this total by half-time. We did reach this total by half-time if we’re counting both teams’ goals. What a game.
Hibs opened by scoring three times in the first 21 minutes. Rangers responded by hitting three in the space of 15 minutes – all this by half-time. The visitors might have had a fourth too had Jason Cumming displayed more composure just before half-time.
Lennon started his afternoon being serenaded by the home fans in the sell-out crowd, Cummings not so much. “One Neil Lennon, there’s only one Neil Lennon,” they sang. These same supporters were left frustrated if they wanted to jeer former hero Cummings each time he touched the ball.
Cummings was a peripheral figure in the initial stages of what proved a crazy afternoon. He had barely featured in the time the game took to produce five goals. He became slightly more involved afterwards. Indeed, were it not for Efe Ambrose’s clearance off the line, Cummings might have scored at the end of a half where Hibs showcased all that’s best and worst about them. It was a case of Hibs in excelsis one minute, Hibs in disarray the next.
The home side might already have been one up before they did open the scoring. Florian Kamberi shot just past the post after driving into the box after eight minutes.
Hibs struck a minute later from the spot, just as they did in their last outing against Hearts. Kamberi tucked the award just as confidently away after David Bates was penalised for impeding Maclaren. Nine minutes later Hibs went further ahead. McGinn took the ball back from Maclaren after a throw-in and curled in a magnificent left-foot cross that Vykintas Slivka headed back across goal for Scott Allan to slide in and prod ball home.
Just three minutes later Hibs made it three. The busy Maclaren managed to direct a well-placed header into the corner following another fine cross from the left, this time from the left foot of Lewis Stevenson.
Easter Road was in ferment. If Hibs kept on scoring at this rate they’d have the six goals they needed and plenty to spare. Then Rangers broke up field. It seemed noteworthy because it was possibly the first time attention switched towards the goal at the Famous Five stand end of the ground. James Tavernier, pictured, played a one-two with Jason Holt before tucking the ball past Ofir Marciano: 1-3.
Two minutes later, Jordan Rossiter, playing his first game since August, finished equally neatly into a corner from a similar position wide on the right. His celebration summed up what it meant for him to get on the scoresheet after such a frustrating period. He gestured for his team-mates to keep switched on. They did more than that, initially at least.
Nicholl immediately made a significant alteration. Rangers brought on Bruno Alves and switched to three at the back. Alves himself got his side back on level terms with a 20-yard free-kick that flashed past Marciano into the corner after Ambrose had bundled James Murphy to the ground.
Rangers were now in the ascendancy and were further energised by a justified grievance: Allan was very lucky to receive only a yellow card for an awful lunge on Rossiter just before the Alves equaliser.
Rangers pulling away in the second half was the only element of this game that made sense. Understandably, Hibs seemed mentally shot and were easy prey for the by-now rampant visitors. Cummings did well to chase a long ball. It seemed he had held on to it too long but the ball was transferred to Holt, whose shot took a nick off Ambrose before reaching the net. There was a similar feel about Rangers’ fifth with Holt’s shot coming off his own man, substitute Josh Windass, on its way past Marciano.
Hibs clawed their way back two minutes later, Maclaren latching on to the loose ball in the box. The same player made it 5-5 deep in injury time after substitute Brandon Barker’s cross. Lennon was sent to the stand for running on to the pitch to celebrate in front of the Rangers fans. One last roar was reserved for his re-emergence later as Hibs conducted a more cheerful lap of honour than might otherwise have been the case.