THERE were storm winds battering Dingwall last night but, by full-time, the air among the host camp at the Global Energy Stadium was one of cool assurance.
SCORERS: Ross County - Sproule 36
With storybook timing, Ivan Sproule cut down his former club with a classic flash of pace and panache in the finish.
Hibs have never beaten County in a competitive match and this was their third defeat from three this season against the Highlanders.
If Pat Fenlon is to sustain European aspirations, his side will have to show a great deal more class and cohesion in coming weeks and months.
Some 213 Hibs fans were there to witness a meek display although, in fairness, County’s January shopping seems to have bolstered key areas of the side.
It fell to Sproule to split the away defence and strike what proved the killer blow in the first half. Scrappy at times, this was no great spectacle but the high wind and sporadic battering rain played a big part in that.
There was no Dingwall debut for County’s new Canadian international defender Andre Hainault. The signing from MLS club Houston Dynamos had received a work permit this week but settled for a place on the bench.
County, with just one defeat and four victories from their past six outings were unchanged after holding Dundee United at Tannadice on Saturday.
Hibs, striving to improve on a run of just one victory from their past seven matches, made five changes from Saturday’s stalemate at Aberdeen, with Scotland cap Scott Robertson making his debut after arriving from Blackpool. Jorge Claros, Eoin Doyle, Lewis Stevenson and Daniel Handling were also restored to the side by Pat Fenlon.
The overhead conditions were treacherous and County’s pitch problems and emergency drainage work after controversial postponements didn’t help matters underfoot.
After almost seven weeks without a home fixture, though, any return to action here was welcome – and County held a certain spark and verve early on.
Early on, County’s Rocco Quinn was first to try and use the wind with a long-range blast over the bar.
The hosts’ Greek signing Evangelos Oikonomou looked a real threat at times as he supported the home attack.
Sproule was also quick to try his luck against his old team early on, only for Ben Williams to smother.
Hibs barely troubled Mark Brown’s goal before the break, although Leigh Griffiths did wriggle free to strike the side-netting on the half hour.
Given the conditions, both sides did well to settle into some decent passing play but the end product in the last third was poor at times.
Suddenly, though, the game ignited with the opener after 36 minutes.
It was deserved for County, who had been building up a head of steam with some sharp midfield play.
Iain Vigurs was the catalyst, showing vision to split the Hibs defence with a through pass. Sproule’s pace should hardly have caught his old team by surprise, but in a flash the Northern Irishman tore clear, nicked around Williams and stroked the ball into the empty net.
County held the slight upper hand as the second half unfolded and Hibs looked like a team toiling to find their rhythm, though Gary Deegan forced a diving save from Mark Brown just after the hour.
There was concern for County as the influential Sproule went off with a hamstring injury. That pave the way for the debut introduction of Steffen Wohlfarth, another January signing, snapped up from German third division club SV Wehen Wiesbaden.
The big target man was quick to show some neat touches with back to goal.
Much of the action saw Hibs huffing and puffing for a way back, but in vain, and there was bafflement in home ranks as a full five minutes stoppage time was added.
Griffiths went down in the box close to Mihael Kovacevic, but the appeals were waved away and County stood firm.
Hibs can talk of Europe until the cows come home, but this didn’t look like a performance worthy of contenders. With just two goals in the last five games, those supporters might fancy a striker in the last 24 hours of the transfer window.
Referee: B Madden