The home stands were rapidly emptying. Those in the away stand were in ferment saluting a first victory over their foes at Easter Road in four long years. If you looked closely enough, if you homed in on the centre circle, you would have noticed two rival footballers sharing a few seconds’ worth of quiet bafflement.
“Was it you that hit that?” wondered Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle. Steven Whittaker confirmed it was indeed he who had hit one of the truest strikes of his career. “I don’t know how that stayed out,” said Doyle. “Me and you both,” was the gist of Whittaker’s reply.
There are moments on which the outcome of football matches hinge. Olly Lee’s drag-back before trying his luck with a left-foot drive from 25 yards that flew past Adam Bogdan into the top corner was one.
Another occurred in the 79th minute of a typically rumbustious clash. Sean Clare had just been booked for simulation. Some referees might have interpreted this incident, following Efe Ambrose’s challenge, differently. Someone other than Kevin Clancy may have handed Hearts the chance to make it 2-0 from the spot – not that penalties are their forte right now.
But their lead remained a slender one when Whittaker let fly from around 25 yards with 11 minutes left. Doyle seemed partially unsighted due to the cluster of bodies in front of him which made what happened next more remarkable. The Irishman got the merest touch with his fingertips to deflect the ball on to the post.
Even after bashing off the upright Whittaker’s effort seemed set to count. The ball trundled just the wrong side of the line from a Hibs point of view. When it finally spun backwards it was already by the other post, which meant the home side had to settle for a corner rather than an equaliser. Hearts then dealt with the set-piece, as they did with everything else Hibs threw at them. Christophe Berra, Michael Smith and the returning Clevid Dikamona were all superb in the visitors’ backline.
No wonder Neil Lennon reined in any anger he may have felt. No one likes losing football matches, least of all one so important to so many people. But he recognised the fine margins involved.
“I was already celebrating,” said Whittaker later. “When it came off the inside of the post I thought I had hit enough of the inside that it was going to go over the line so I was already spinning away to celebrate.”
This was premature, he quickly discovered. Somehow Doyle had got a touch. Somehow, after hitting the inside of the post, the ball stayed out.
“At first I was thinking: ‘Where is it?’ ” said Doyle. “Then I had a look behind me and I saw it roll across. I was just praying it was going past the goal because I didn’t know if any of them were following in, or if we were following in. I’m quite pleased it went out for a corner in the end.”
Quite pleased. Footballers are often good at understatement. According to Whittaker, the goalkeeper simply did his job. “I struck it well enough,” he said. “I hit it exactly where I wanted to hit it. I think the goalie might even have seen it late through the bodies but he has done his job and got enough on it to keep it out.”
Had things worked out differently, especially on a recent night in Livingston, the goalkeeper might not have been there. Not this particular one at least. It’s possible some of those in the ground didn’t even know who Doyle was. The 33-year-old had spent his entire career down south prior to joining Hearts in the summer.
Hibs fans may not have been aware that Craig Levein, pictured, switched keepers following the 5-0 drubbing by Livingston more than a fortnight ago. Doyle sat on the bench that night, as he had throughout the season.
There had been a brief moment of alarm when a red card was flashed in Zdenek Zlamal’s face that evening in West Lothian. Doyle reached for his gloves. It looked like he was going to be needed, with the first act of his Hearts career set to be facing a penalty on what turned into a horror show. But then referee Nick Walsh realised he had made a mistake. He had not in fact already booked the goalkeeper.
Zlamal stayed on. He might, in retrospect, have wished he had been sent off. He was dropped for the next game in any case. Doyle came in. But it was not a happy start. As the Irishman feared would be the case at Livingston, the first act of his Hearts career was to fetch the ball from the back of the net. Sam Cosgrove struck the first of Aberdeen’s two goals that afternoon after only two minutes.
“I don’t know what would have been worse, a debut in a 5-0 defeat or my first touch coming when I picked the ball out of the back of the net against Aberdeen!” reflected Doyle yesterday.
He has now played three successive games, keeping clean sheets in two of them. Whittaker’s effort apart, he was not truly tested on Saturday evening. He was protected well by the defenders in front of him while the crossbar also came to his aid following Oli Shaw’s dipping effort shortly into the second half. Hibs created few clear-cut chances and looked more and more bereft of ideas as the game wore on.
David Gray is a Hibs legend but not many people’s idea of an impact substitute, even given what happened in the dying seconds of a match one May afternoon in 2016. Hibs were clearly hindered by their missing Australian trio, Martin Boyle’s absence particularly sorely felt. But then their rivals know what it is like to lose key men. This win was further evidence they could be back on track.