IT proved all right on the night for Hibernian, because the acted to type. Precisely by acting against type. There was a degree of comfort in their victory in West Lothian that moves them to within a point of second place Rangers.
Scorers: Livingston - Hippolyte (14); Hibs - Robertson (8), Cummings (15), Malonga (82)
For the pundits, the trip to Livingston for Alan Stubbs men seemed set up for them to come a cropper. A confluence of factors shouted out to many that the trip would leave them squealing, and out of the race for second in the Championship with two games to come. Chief among these had to be the downer expected to endure from the inherent softness they exhibited in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Falkirk on Saturday.
In addition, there was the Leith club’s run of four defeats in six games – which could be set against Mark Burchill’s refusing-to-go-gently side heading into last night unbeaten in their past five outings as they desperately attempt to extricate themselves from the foot of the Championship. For good measure, there was also the suspension-enforced absence of Scott Allan, who did more than any other Hibs player to spare Hibs a hoodoo-extending Hampden outcome.
They came through all that with early goals from Scott Robertson and Jason Cummings no more helpful to their cause perhaps than Livingston defender Darren Cole being dismissed in the 44th minute.
It is difficult to quite know what to make of Hibs anymore. They remain outside bets for second place – last night they moved to within a point – and the fact is, for all that Stubbs was required to rebuild on embarking in his first management post last summer, the Easter Road side were fully expected to be able to finish and have a crack at Premiership promotion in the play-offs.
On a balmy evening in West Lothian, the visitors demonstrated barmy aspects to their character in the early stages. There was no doubting their desire for atonement in a whirlwind start that resulted in them surging forward from the off with a purpose that brought instant rewards.
And irrespective of the laxity of the Livingston defence in allowing Scott Robertson to be able to run on to a ball launched down the centre of the pitch after eight minutes, it was the midfielder’s craft that spun this opportunity into gold. The low angled drive he tucked into the right-hand corner of Darren Jamieson’s net was a wonder of precision.
However, if that was Hibs as a team to admire, what followed eight minutes later contained an element of what causes their followers to threaten to expire. A looping ball hoisted from deep appeared to be in Jordan Forster’s sightline, and therefore, heading line. Somehow, though, he misjudged the flight and that let Myles Hippolyte in. The forward may be erratic but when it comes together he is can prove explosive, as he was in smashing a left-foot volley high into the net.
Yet hardly had the game restarted before Hibs were back in front. A ball that bobbled around the Livingston box was met by Jason Cummings in the penalty box, and after his first effort was blocked the striker made no mistake on connecting with the rebound.
At this stage, the potential for a goalfest seemed strong. Especially when neither defence did. Hibs’ vulnerability from cross balls, which Falkirk manager Peter Houston had highlighted to undercut Stubbs bleating about the unfairness of the semi-final outcome, was again on show at various intervals. Livingston, meanwhile, for all they have rallied and last week were unlucky not to beat Rangers on their own patch, exhibited frailties that could easily have been exploited.
That the final seconds of the first period brought a big moment was not unexpected then. Likewise that it involved Cummings. However, the nature of the pivotal incident could not be predicted. As soon as Darren Cole was late in on the Hibs striker a realisation seemed to strike the full-back about what would happen next.
Having been cautioned for handball just after his team had gone behind for a second time – and you could wagered that after the Josh Meekings furore at Hampden in Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s semi-final success over Celtic – Cole was walking almost before referee Andrew Dallas had reached into his pocket to show yellow then red.
Considering Burchill’s team had to battle for 45 minutes a man short, Hibs made heavy weather of securing only a third victory in a run-in that not so long ago many thought would seem them run away with the runners-up spot. The fact owed everything to Dylan McGeouch failing to convert a penalty he earned in the 57th minute when he seemed to propel himself forward as if he’d been shot from a cannon when challenged by Kyle Jacobs. His spot-kick wasn’t terrible but it was hit at the three-quarters height that allowe Jamieson to launch himself to his right and beat away.
Livingston rarely threatened theirt visitors goal and the second period became all about whether the scoreline would be 2-1 or 3-1, in essence. It was transformed into the latter after substitute Dominque Malonga seemed to twist himself like a jibe bunny before beating Jamieson at his near post from an angle on the left. The Hibs support didn’t quite know what to do with themselves for the final 13 minutes - four of them added - that followed. They haven’t been used to being able to relax watching their team of late.
Livingston: Jamieson; Donaldson, Gallacher, Cole, Fordyce; O’Brien, Kyle Jacobs; Mullen (Sekaja 82), Pittman, Hippolyte (Glen 82); White (Boulding 65). Subs: Walker, Beaumont, McKenna, Currie.
Hibernian: Oxley: Fontaine, Hanlon, Forster; Stevenson, Fyvie (Craig), Robertson, McGeouch, Boyle; Elalagui (Malonga 66), Cummings (Dja Djedje 75). Subs: Cerny, Stanton, Handling, Dunsmore.