Hibernian midfielder Stevie Mallan’s prowess and technique in scoring a stunning free-kick, aligned to his all-round contribution, in Saturday’s victory over Kilmarnock unfortunately became a footnote amid another refereeing controversy.
In keeping with what has become something of a crisis of confidence in the Scottish FA, man in the middle John Beaton handed the hosts a hugely contentious penalty which ultimately settled this tie. That the official then did not reciprocate in stoppage time merely increased Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke’s ire.
The main flashpoint was Kirk Broadfoot’s 78th-minute challenge on Jamie Maclaren, which resulted in Flo Kamberi converting from 12 yards to hand Neil Lennon’s side a first win in four Premiership outings. Broadfoot himself then felt he should have earned a spot kick following a tangle with Efe Ambrose.
However, this game was a demonstration of high-quality, absorbing football, with Mallan a protagonist in the middle of the park.
Neil Lennon’s side were up and running after 12 minutes when the Scotland Under-21 internationalist swept a stunning free-kick, his fourth set-piece strike from seven goals this term, past Jamie MacDonald.
Mallan then set up David Gray to head home from a corner in the 23rd minute.
“The free-kick was just magnificent and I thought Stevie’s all-round quality was good,” beamed Hibs head coach Lennon. “He showed a real desire to get the ball back and keep things ticking over.
“He can be delighted with his contribution but that skill in itself is tremendous and that’s seven goals and it’s a great return already.
“I think the squad in itself is a work in progress with the turnover of players but it was important to win and keep the momentum going.”
This game came close to replicating the drama of last April’s 5-3 victory for Hibs at Easter Road with four goals inside the opening half.
Eamonn Brophy pulled one back for Kilmarnock three minutes after Gray scored, turning in Stephen O’Donnell’s pass at the near post.
Greg Stewart then showed his predatory instincts with a fierce drive from 20 yards before the late penalty drama unfolded. Hibs winger Thomas Agyepong was introduced at the break at the expense of Martin Boyle and showed that he has a part to play on his loan from Manchester City with forceful bursts forward.
This game also went someway to changing the 21-year-old’s perception of Scottish football. He said: “The quality of the football was amazing. The manager told us to keep passing it and open up at the right time, that’s how we would hurt them. I was told Scottish football was more physical, and when we played Livingston [a fortnight ago] it was a different ball game compared to Saturday. It was good. I knew at home we could pass the ball well as the pitch is good.”
Kilmarnock forward Stewart, who is on a season-long loan from Birmingham City, admits he is keen to repay the trust manager Clarke has in him after being handed a licence to thrill at the Rugby Park outfit.
Like Mallan, the 28-year-old also caught the eye and Stewart – who spent last season on a temporary loan spell at Aberdeen, is relishing the free-rein in has in a role behind striker Brophy.
“It’s something that I enjoy doing – that role off the striker,” said Stewart. “I feel that the gaffer has given me that free role when we have the ball, and when we’ve not got the ball you still have to work hard and come back into a shape and make it hard for the opposition.
“I can still get better at that as well. I feel like I need to get some consistency back into my game.
“Obviously, I’ve had a couple of staggered seasons on loan. But the manager has shown a bit of trust in me and hopefully I can repay him. I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing these past two games.
“I’m starting to feel a bit sharper so hopefully I can contribute to helping the team.
“But we have taken nothing from the game against Hibs so I’m disappointed overall.”