Better late than never. Just as the 100-odd people inside McDiarmid Park had settled on 90 minutes of their lives they probably regretted giving to the sport of football, St Johnstone defender Liam Gordon decided to intervene.
Gordon, to be fair, actually played really well in the heart of St Johnstone’s defence, but as this turgid, rigor mortis-inducing match entered stoppage time, he needlessly came through the back of Hibs defender Ryan Porteous to concede a penalty. Substitute Stevie Mallan stepped up and blasted the ball high into the net. Hibs had grabbed all three points, put them in a swag bag and have now eclipsed the top-flight start made by Turnbull’s Tornadoes in season 74-75.
Mentioning the two “classes” in the same breath may seem a bit far-fetched as this Hibs team isn’t a patch on Joe Harper, Pat Stanton et al, but that season Hibs split the Old Firm with a second-placed finish. That season, their fifth match of the campaign was against St Johnstone and they lost 1-0 at home, so to win the fifth game of this term 1-0 away at Perth is not to be sniffed at. They sit joint-top of the Premiership with Rangers, 13 points out of 15 and no goals conceded from open play.
Hibs still need more work in the final third to be deemed as heavy favourites for third place, but they are solid as a rock at the back. St Johnstone were pretty water-tight too –captain Jason Kerr impressed mightily at centre-half – and they probably had the best of what little openings were created. Plus, they will feel aggrieved that a first-half header from Callum Hendry was incorrectly ruled out for offside.
Both teams made one change to their respective starting line-ups. The hosts switched things up in the final third on the back of Thursday’s 1-0 defeat by Aberdeen, with Craig Conway coming in for David Wotherspoon, while Hibs were forced to make an alteration for the first time since the second day of the campaign as midfielder Scott Allan replaced the injured forward Kevin Nisbet. The summer signing from Dunfermline Athletic has a hamstring injury and is unlikely to be fit until after the September international break.
Hibs started with a bit of purpose and threatened inside two minutes. From centre-half, Porteous fizzed a pass that bypassed the midfield straight to Christian Doidge in attack. The Welshman controlled, spun and set Martin Boyle free on the right-hand side. The Australian took aim and his low effort was well turned away by Elliott Parish in the St Johnstone goal. From the resultant corner, Hibs claimed for a penalty when the ball struck Hendry, but referee John Beaton deemed it body rather than arm.
The match had slipped into the torpor that has been the subject of much discussion afflicting a number of Premiership games this season – particularly those broadcast live on Sky Sports. It is a good thing the television deal is not a pay-per-goal agreement. A ray of hope came just before the half-hour mark – borne out of an error, it must be said. Parish dawdled a second too long on a backpass and Boyle blocked his clearance, the ball looping high into the penalty box. Daryl Horgan’s mis-control landed back with Boyle and the Australian prodded the ball home, already aware that he was offside by some distance.
That seemed to spur St Johnstone to do the same. A minute later, Conway floated a cross into the box and Hendry beat Hibs keeper Ofir Marciano to head the ball into the net. The Israeli was lucky that his poor judgment was saved by the linesman’s flag, although television pictures proved it was the wrong call, with Horgan playing the Saints forward onside.
Moments after that, we had another disallowed goal. Allan’s delicious corner was headed goalward by Doidge and Parish made an excellent save with his legs. The rebound pinged out back to Doidge, who at this point was on the ground and although he bundled the ball into the net, Beaton immediately blew for a handball by the Welshman.
Alas, that was as good as it got for the rest of the half. Allan, Hibs’ creative midfielder, became more and more frustrated as the gaps failed to materialise, while Alex Gogic hoiked a shot so far wide of goal that there was a brief danger that the corner flag was going to be woken from 42 minutes of unbroken sleep.
It was St Johnstone who restarted the match with more vigour. Hendry is a busy, stocky forward and Paul Hanlon found him an uncomfortable opponent throughout. The Hibs defender was left floundering by some good work down Saints’ right from the 22-year-old and Marciano did well to cut out his fizzed cross. Then on, 49 minutes, Marciano leapt to turn over a vicious drive from McNamara as the hosts pinned Hibs back.
Hibs decided to roll the dice first and make a substitution on 61 minutes, with Drey Wright coming on to face the club he left last summer. He had an immediate chance to make an impact when found one-on-one down Hibs’ right by Allan, but his final ball was badly miscued and the chance was lost.
The diminishing level of Hibs’ attacks were clearly irking Allan, who was booked for one of those petulant fouls managers must hate, and his race was run shortly afterwards when Mallan – making his first appearance since Boxing Day last year due to a knee complaint – replaced him.
Hibs then threw on Jamie Gullan to add another forward into the fray, but it was Doidge who had Hibs’ best opening as the match entered the latter stages. Mallan found him free with a raking pass, but the impressive Kerr was again alert and threw himself in front of the ball to divert it away for a corner.
That appeared to be the best of the final 15 minutes as the match meandered towards its conclusion. But as stoppage time began, Hibs made one last surge. Gogic struck the inside of the post with a header and when the ball was swung back in, Gordon fouled Porteous and Beaton pointed instantly to the penalty spot. Mallan made no mistake and the Hibs bench erupted.
It all got too much for poor Liam Craig, who was sent off after the final whistle for some dissent. Saints played well and their day will come. For Hibs, their day is right now – but they will need to play better than this to stay at the summit with Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic lying in wait within their next tranche of four matches.
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