ROSS COUNTY have assured their Scottish Premier League status after winning 1-0 against Hibernian, who find themselves deeper in relegation trouble.
Scorers: Ross County - Brittain (63 pen)
Hibernian were unable to ensure they are spared a fraught conclusion to an already miserable season against Kilmarnock on Saturday by slipping to defeat at Ross County, dropping to ninth place in the process. They could yet end up in second-bottom place after they passed up the opportunity to secure safety in the Highlands last night.
Of course, at this late stage of the campaign it is always likely that one team’s despair will be contrasted by the joy shown by their victorious opponents, with Ross County now certain to contest a third successive top-flight season.
Derek Adams’ team earned the win that takes them away from danger courtesy of a second-half penalty by Richard Brittain. The hosts out-muscled a Hibs team that were perhaps ill-equipped for this particular assignment at the Global Energy stadium. Hibs had chances, particularly in the frantic finale of the game, but their hopes had already been dealt a savage blow by Brittain’s well-hit penalty just after the hour mark. Ross County had several other opportunities to extend this lead before Hibs’ desperate efforts at the end.
Easter Road manager Terry Butcher again placed his faith in youth, which seemed significant given what was at stake. The 19-year-old Jason Cummings and 20-year-old Danny Handling were paired together in attack, while teenagers Alex Harris and Sam Stanton were positioned behind them in midfield. It was a tough task for these players against a home team whose physicality is a feature of their play.
More experienced and imposing players were left on the Hibs bench. James Collins, who came on as substitute in the closing stages, again failed to ignite his Easter Road career when given the opportunity. His back-post header flashed just wide, and with it went Hibs’ chances of taking something from a game as the excitement reached fever pitch levels during over four minutes of injury time.
Before this, the game had unfolded in the more cagey manner expected. Few had reason to imagine this would be a high-quality affair, and the early stages lived up to these low expectations as nerves got the better of both teams. It bore all the hallmarks of a game played in the shadow of relegation although both sides were motivated by one positive thought – victory would secure their safety and leave other sides to fight out the issue of who could be left in the relegation play-off place.
This appealing prospect seemed to give Hibs some impetus and they prevented the home side from settling. Indeed, the visitors could well have edged ahead after only seven minutes when a poor touch by Ross County defender Yann Songo’o gave Handling the chance to play in Cummings, whose shot, though powerfully hit, was directed straight at goalkeeper Mark Brown.
Hibs’ high-energy start was helped by a formation in which Handling operated just behind Cummings. It was not quite 4-4-2 but it suggested that Terry Butcher’s side were keen to extinguish their relegation fears with a victory on the night. The uncertainty has gone on long enough. Although a tempting thought, the reality of the situation is that they are a team with only one league win to their name all year. It was unrealistic to expect them to have things all their own way, and they didn’t.
Hibs fell away again midway through the half as Ross County’s Yoann Arquin began to make his presence felt. He should have scored at the back post after a corner fell for him but, not for the last time on the night, he delayed his shot too long, allowing Liam Craig to make a critical block. But the visitors, roared on by a vociferous away support, should have scored when Scott Robertson found himself with a free header. However, he succeeded only in directing the ball past the post.
Ross County came closer still, and it was again Arquin who posed the danger. Richard Brittain’s free kick, after a foul by Craig, was expertly flicked towards the back post by Arquin. However, rather than hit the upright and go in, the ball smacked against it and rebounded into play again. It was a huge relief for Hibs, who came close to scoring themselves just before half-time when Craig should have done better than head Sam Stanton’s corner over the bar from close in.
As ever, the feeling grew that they might come to regret these misses, although Brittain provided a reminder that both sides were guilty of profligacy just after half-time when he failed to convert a fine cross by Melvin De Leeuw. He could only head straight at Ben Williams.
But as Hibs supporters present might have feared, it was the strong front-pairing of Arquin and Slew who combined to ensure Ross County had the chance to go ahead. Arguin strode purposefully towards the box before aiming to pick out Slew with a cutback. Just as Slew was preparing to shoot at goal he was clumsily up-ended from behind by Robertson.
The penalty decision made by referee Brian McGarry seemed a formality, and given the significance, Brittain dealt with the kick in admirably nerveless fashion. Slew and Arquin both missed further opportunity to give their side a more comfortable advantage, and it was required, because, as expected, Hibs mounted a late rally.
Some of their misses, particularly with headers, were of the unforgivable variety. Knowing how this season has gone, perhaps this was expected by the Hibs supporters, who drifted away at the end and prepared for a long journey home and one more nervy afternoon on Saturday.
Ross County: Brown, Cikos, Gordon, Songo’o, Boyd, Brittain, De Leeuw (Cooper 64), Kettlewell (Quinn 57), Kiss, Arquin, Slew (Carey 89). Subs not used: Maatsen, Fraser, McLean, Ikonomou.
Hibernian: Williams, Maybury, McGivern, Handling (Collins 72), Stevenson, Robertson, Craig, Harris (Watmore 64), Stanton, Forster, Cummings (Haynes 84). Subs not used: McPake, Cairney, Tudur Jones, Murdoch.
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
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