Michael O’Halloran’s fine start in Perth continued as his fifth goal of the season helped St Johnstone maintain their unbeaten start with a 1-1 draw at home to Hibernian, writes Craig Fowler.
Positives, negatives and points were all in equal share after a tense 90 minutes at McDiarmid Park. The hosts were able to maintain their unbeaten start to the league season, even if they didn’t play particularly well, while Hibs again proved themselves capable of challenging for a European spot, outperforming last season’s fourth-place side on their own turf.
It meant the happier of the two managers was the man in the visiting dugout. Even though Neil Lennon lamented his side’s inability to make the most of their opportunities in the final third, he was content with the manner in which they went about their business.
“We totally dominated all aspects of the game. It was pretty similar to the way we played at Dundee, but coming here and playing as well as that against a team who are streetwise and battle-hardened was good,” reflected the Hibs boss. “We matched them physically and the football we played at times was outstanding. We had clear-cut opportunities and that pleases me more than anything else. The only thing that doesn’t please me is that we didn’t take them.”
St Johnstone’s 4-1-4-1 allowed them to match-up man for man with Hibs in the centre of the park, with Murray Davidson and David Wotherspoon occupying the attentions of John McGinn and Marvin Bartley, while Paul Paton did his best to track Anthony Stokes, who dropped off central striker Simon Murray at the head of the Hibs attack.
That isn’t to say the hosts were without attacking intent of their own. They created three solid chances in the opening 20 minutes. The first two were denied by last-second interventions by Hibernian defenders, before Steven MacLean fired into the side netting from an acute angle.
Hibs went close a minute later when Murray headed wide from a Stokes cross, which kick-started a period of quasi-dominance from the visitors. Though they penned Saints back for long periods, they were unable to create anything clear-cut, with Murray’s touch letting him down on a couple of occasions and David Gray firing a volley wide of goal.
Tommy Wright was both unhappy with his side’s performance and, curiously, an enforced half-time substitution which saw Murray Davidson make way for Liam Craig.
“He said he was fit. He’d said he was ill and then said he was fit,” said an agitated Wright. “I’m not happy he’s had to go off after 45 minutes. You can’t tell your manager you’re fit and then have to go off after 45.” Pressed further for information on Davidson’s health, Wright said curtly: “Unwell. But when a player says he’s all right to play, the responsibility lies with the player. Next question.”
For the fifth consecutive game to start this season, Hibs conceded first, but that so nearly wasn’t the case. Stokes looked certain to follow up Martin Boyle’s low drive, only for Ricky Foster to make a miraculous last-ditch challenge. From the resulting corner, St Johnstone broke upfield, with Craig crossing for Michael O’Halloran to fire home from close range.
St Johnstone were soon given their own lesson in football’s fluctuating nature. After MacLean passed up a decent opportunity, easing Efe Ambrose off the ball before firing wide, Hibs moved rapidly up the park. Murray picked up the ball on the left channel and the striker’s low cross was turned into his own net by Paul Paton, with Stokes lurking right behind the Saints midfielder.
A similar fate almost befell Steven Anderson a few moments later, but the centre-half was able to clear from underneath his own crossbar with Murray ready to pounce.
Hibs looked the team most likely to grab a winner and should have done so with eight minutes remaining. The excellent John McGinn slipped a perfectly weighted pass for Danny Swanson running free through the centre. The ex-St Johnstone man hesitated in pulling the trigger, allowing the defence to recover.
He almost atoned for it seconds later, driving to the edge of the box and laying off for winger Boyle, but the Hibee was denied by a superb stop from Alan Mannus, who tipped his thunderous effort on to the crossbar.