It been a while since the mood music around Hibs has seemed so downbeat. This game exposed a number of shortcomings for Neil Lennon to ponder over, but the most galling must have been that they were not only out-fought but also ultimately outplayed by this character-infused Livingston side who turned around a second half deficit in emphatic fashion.
For all the turmoil supposedly unleashed by Kenny Miller’s sudden exit as player-manager, the West Lothian club seem to have taken it all in their nonchalant stride – two wins out of two since his departure are testimony to that as well as Gary Holt’s calm stewardship since taking over. You get the impression that Holt was attracted here by the very qualities they displayed in abundance in this game.
“We’re built on a reputation of being in your face, on the front foot, tenacious and aggressive in the right areas. We know we’ll keep going until the final whistle.” he reflected. “We go a goal down and it wasn’t a great goal to lose, but in the final third we’ve also got a lot of creative players who can score goals. Look at those two we scored today – you’ll not see better two this weekend”.
The man in charge may have changed but Livingston’s identity as a playing unit remains as consistently effective as ever. Hibs started at pace which suggested they might be attempting to run the hosts off the park, but they soon discovered they were up against the football equivalent of Newton’s law about any force being met with an equal and opposite reaction. The faster Hibs tried to shuttle the ball around the park the quicker their amber-clad opponents seemed to be swarming in their faces.
For all the early possession and delightful one-touch moves that Hibs wove together they made little inroads on the home side’s characteristically obdurate and well-drilled rearguard. It took until the cusp of half-time for Lennon’s side to engineer what seemed like a certain goal but Martin Boyle’s teasing cutback was missed by Lewis Allan and then Lewis Stevenson sliced wildly over Liam Kelly’s goal.
Livingston, meanwhile, conjured up their usual threat from set pieces, with a Craig Halkett downward header producing some unease for Adam Bogdan and new acquisition Dolly Menga providing sporadic menace with his strength and pace. They finished the first half as the stronger side and should have taken the lead almost immediately after the restart only for Scott Pittman to fluff a great opening.
It would be fair to say then that Hibs taking the lead a short while later was against the run of play. It was a goal that just about summed up their overall performance – unconvincing and disjointed – but somehow after a goalmouth scramble Daryl Horgan intervened to drill the ball home.
The misleading scoreline lasted little over five minutes before Shaun Byrne demonstrated some wonderfully nimble footwork in the box and then calmly slotted home the equaliser. This was like a shot of collective adrenalin to the already pumped up hosts – chance after chance came their way with Pittman missing another glorious opportunity before redeeming himself almost immediately with a slaloming run through the Hibs defence and lashing the ball beyond Bogdan to confirm a merited and spectacular turnaround.
“The goals we lost today were awful,” was Lennon’s damning verdict. “I’ve got to take responsibility – I’ve got a bit of work to do with the players and the style of play. It’s one of the poorest performances in my time here.”