A win over Rangers just four weeks before they meet again at Hampden Park is a welcome outcome however precious are the points earned. So this was a double cause for joy for Hibs, who appear to be hitting their stride again.
If it is already too late to be described as the right time to come back into form, it is better now, when only the issue of champions has been settled, than never.
Whether it has come too late to reclaim second place before the play-offs it remains to be seen. But they overcame this test against a Rangers side unwilling to give anything away for free, hence Barrie McKay’s second thunderbolt in four days six minutes from time.
Jason Cummings and an own goal by Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham had put Hibs 2-0 up inside 20 minutes.
Jason Holt’s tap-in shortly before half-time meant there were plenty of home fans concerned that their side were about to throw away a two-goal lead for the second successive home game. But wing-back Niklas Gunnarsson’s powerful finish eased fears, temporarily it turned out. McKay’s goal, from a shot which beat Mark Oxley too easily at his near post, signalled fresh anxiety in the home stands.
Despite their lung-busting win over Celtic coming 24 hours after Hibs’ win over Dundee United, Rangers finished the stronger of the two semi-final victors. Oxley redeemed himself on an awkward night for him personally by stopping Holt’s effort from close in at the death and coming to claim a late corner.
Danny Boyle, the king of sporting choreography after his Olympics opening ceremony triumph, was in the main stand. But there was nothing to mark Rangers’ status as champions on their first outing since securing the title.
Alan Stubbs claimed enough respect had been paid following his phone call to the Rangers management team after their victory over Dumbarton just over a fortnight ago. So the teams simply emerged from the tunnel side by side, with the most significant piece of news being Oxley’s presence in the Hibs line-up.
The goalkeeper returned after suspension, so Conrad Logan, man of the match on Saturday against Dundee United, was on the bench. Despite the big Irishman’s absence from the starting line-up, he got the biggest cheer of the night when he warmed up for the first time, after 70 minutes. While he wasn’t in action, goalkeepers were still in the spotlight – just not for positive reasons.
In light of the goodwill engendered by Logan at Hampden, Oxley picked the wrong time to raise more doubts about his ability to deal with crosses.
But before he suffered this ignominy, Foderingham committed a perhaps more embarrassing error under the noses of the Rangers support, whose party was soured slightly by Anthony Stokes supplying the cross that the ’keeper fumbled into his own net.
Hibs had already benefited from a mistake made by the visitors when Cummings latched on to James Tavernier’s slack throw-in and finished well from just outside the six-yard box after four minutes. Few can have any complaints about the way the Hibs striker has reacted after his “Panenka” penalty debacle at Hampden on Saturday.
This was his eighth goal against Rangers in two seasons and though it is clearly a case of taking the rough with the smooth with the player (he was later booked for an idiotic dive), few could argue he is not worth the trouble.
Hibs’ evening got a lot better in the 18th minute, when Stokes responded to baiting from the Rangers fans in front of him by sending in a cross that, while dangerous, should have been caught by Foderingham. Instead the goalkeeper dropped it into the net.
Oxley had already distinguished himself when first called into action, blocking Tavernier’s effort from close-in after Kenny Miller’s flick. But he was badly at fault when he allowed Tavernier’s cross to hit the bar rather than attempt to claim it. When the ball rebounded down onto the goalline, Holt was there to prod it over the line.
It was the lifeline Rangers wanted. Hibs lamented not only how cheaply it was earned, but also how potentially damaging was its timing, just five minutes before half-time. It meant the visitors had something to build on when they emerged after the interval.
But Hibs were to be commended for re-establishing their two-goal lead so early in the second half, Gunnarsson rifling in after Paul Hanlon’s header from John McGinn’s corner was half-cleared into his path by Tavernier.
The Norwegian picked the right time to score his first goal for the club. While another special goal by McKay, who lashed a shot in from 25 yards, threatened to spoil their evening, Hibs prevailed.
Referee: K Clancy
HIBERNIAN: Oxley, Gunnarason, Hanlon, McGregor, Gray, Bartley, McGinn, Fyvie, Stevenson, Cummings (Keatings 76), Stokes (Dagnall 88). Subs Not Used: Logan, Henderson, Dagnall, Thomson.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace; Ball (Zelalem, 61), O’Halloran (King 61), Holt, McKay; Miller (Shiels 76). Subs Not Used: McCrorie, Law, Clark, Burt.