How Hibs made it into top six despite ignominious officiating - and why price could be paid later on

Hibs can now turn their full attention to the job of booking a European spot after they secured their top six status. But they will go into the five final games frustrated to be two points further behind their main rivals than might have been the case after this 1-1 draw with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park.

In a nervy opening period, they had gone behind to a Stevie May overhead kick, which Hibs captain and goalkeeper David Marshall allowed to squirm under him, but they restored parity by half-time thanks to a Lewis Stevenson strike and will have been looking to push on after the break. Those hopes were hampered, though, by yet another piece of questionable refereeing, which saw James Jeggo red-carded – a decision that not only undermined them on the day but could have debilitating implications as they head into the post-split fixtures.

This league season will be remembered as the term where all sense seemed to abandon the national sport. While errors and opinion will always punctuate play the fact that VAR has muddied the waters so thoroughly, validating ignominious decisions that should surely have been overturned, is a unwelcome source of frustration throughout the top tier and has shone a bright light on the quality of officiating in this country.

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There was more evidence of it at McDiarmid Park as referee Craig Napier made a decision that could have cost Hibs dearly, had results elsewhere not gifted them the opportunity to see out the season among the elite. It could still cost them the financial remuneration and the kudos of European football next season, though. Obviously, there no guarantees that Lee Johnson’s men would have continued their comeback and added a second or third goal to ease them to victory, but as this match played out they were left with their backs to the wall, as their 10 men tried to prevent 11-man St Johnstone breaking through to claim all three points.

Hibs celebrate a rare goal from Lewis Stevenson to earn them a point against St Johnstone.Hibs celebrate a rare goal from Lewis Stevenson to earn them a point against St Johnstone.
Hibs celebrate a rare goal from Lewis Stevenson to earn them a point against St Johnstone.

The referee had been swift in deciding that Hibs’ Australian midfielder, who has been a solid performer since arriving in January, had erred white challenging for a 48th-minute loose ball in the middle of the park. On first viewing it seemed harsh and re-runs show that he got to the ball first, studs were not up and although he caught Connor McLennan on the follow-through, there was nothing reckless or malicious in the contact. But, the referee was backed up by VAR and St Johnstone took a numerical advantage into the remainder of the game. In the wake of the Graeme Shinnie stooshie, it is another which is already stimulating disbelief and debate.

It was the second weekend in a row that the Leith side had faced a team-looking for the fabled new gaffer bounce in the aftermath of a managerial shake-up. In the Edinburgh derby against Hearts, they still succeeded in coming out on top but, faced with a make or break afternoon that would determine which side of the top and bottom six divide they would see out their league campaign there were some early jitters, not helped by an uncharacteristic lack of command from captain Marshall, whose poor kick-out in the 11th minute gave Drey Wright a scoring chance against his former club. Marshall recovered to save the shot before the ball was cleared but he was culpable when St Johnstone grabbed a set piece goal in the 25th minute. A low corner in from David Wotherspoon was flicked into the danger area by Ryan McGowan and when it was cleared to May, he sent his acrobatic shot into the net, under the body of the former Scotland keeper.

It did trigger a more positive response from HIbs, who, having been bolstered by their derby result did not want to dive back into the doldrums. In the 32nd minute Elie Youan did the running before picking out Stevenson as the capital side levelled, Out of contract at the end of the season and looking to earn an extension, it was the defender’s 10th goal for Hibs and his first in nearly five years. But it was timely.

The hope as they re-emerged for the second half, well aware that results elsewhere had all but rubber-stamped their top six spot, will have been to push on for a winner that would have kept them just one point behind fourth-placed Hearts and four behind pacesetters Aberdeen in third. Both of whom they will face in the coming weeks. The loss of Jeggo made that tough, as it gave Saints, who are scrambling to avoid the unsavoury slide into the relegation dog-fight, the momentum. As caretaker boss Steven MacLean’s men applied the pressure with substitute and former Hibee Melker Hallberg an additional threat, the away side were restricted to counter-attacks, which culminated in very few shots on goal.

Stevie May put Saints 1-0 up with this overhead kick.Stevie May put Saints 1-0 up with this overhead kick.
Stevie May put Saints 1-0 up with this overhead kick.

By then the match had descended into pantomime as Napier seemed to revel in a role that alternated between baddie and village idiot, summed up by one farcical moment when Kevin Nisbet went down after a tackle and then got up but despite wanting to just get on with play, the official insisted the Hibs physio came on, immediately about turned but was forced to momentarily take the striker off with him. It was little wonder both technical areas gained bookings on such a bewildering and frustrating afternoon.

As the match played out, with St Johnstone posing the bigger goal threat, and forcing a couple of quality saves and some timely clearances, they will feel they should have got more from the performance but Hibs will have left Perth feeling they could have got more.

Top six has ensured this season will stand as an improvement on last term. But they still want more. With an appeal unlikely following the Shinnie hoo-ha, they will now be wondering how many points the loss of Jeggo might cost them in the coming weeks.