Lewis Stevenson, the Hibernian defender, came very close to tasting defeat in his 400th club appearance in Dingwall on Saturday. The late escape against relegation candidates did little to quell his enthusiasm for looming top six challenges.
The Easter Road stalwart of 16 years’ service played down the impressive career landmark, but warmed to the theme of Hibs’ very realistic chances of trimming a three-point gap on second and third-placed Aberdeen.
Substitute Oli Shaw’s late equaliser was cruel on Ross County in a time of need, particularly given their stubborn resistance after Billy Mckay’s 28th minute opener.
The Dingwall team went within stoppage time minutes of moving to just two points behind Dundee and Hamilton, rather than four, and to three points above Partick Thistle rather than one. A County revival, though, appears underway.
For Hibs, the draw was both a missed opportunity and a point gained on Aberdeen in the chase for European places. Rangers’ victory made it ground lost as well as gained.
In Stevenson, after nine games undefeated, there is certainly a conviction that both of Celtic’s current closest challengers can be usurped. “We are showing consistency and our record against the top six clubs is good,” said Stevenson, pictured inset. “It will be five cup finals against the best in the league, but there is a real belief we can push for second place.”
To achieve it, Hibs will have to show greater guile in the final third than they did against a composed and resolute County defence.
“It almost feels like a defeat and the boys are a bit down, but Ross County defended well and we didn’t really cut them open,” the 30-year-old admitted. “But it is one point closer to second place. It’s going to be an exciting end to the season.
“Ross County are a team fighting for every point and, with the defending they put in, they will feel they deserved it.”
Hibs found chances limited against a team that leaked goals with great generosity not so long ago. The new interim management team of Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson has instilled spirit and belief since Owen Coyle’s departure, but also organisation and greater tactical awareness.
When chances did fall to Hibs they were wasteful and they paid a price before the half hour as Alex Schalk out-witted Efe Ambrose on the left and found Mckay, reborn after months in the shadows, controlling under pressure before netting with confidence.
To the Easter Road club’s credit, they didn’t drop in effort or belief in the face of demoralising home resistance, Shaw’s 16-yard finish easing frustrations.
County’s Mckay summed up the Highlanders’ burgeoning belief a seventh Premiership season can be secured.
“We feel a bit deflated,” the former Caley Thistle and Wigan striker admitted. “It was a sickener right at the end, but we need to put it into perspective. Hibs are a good team and it could be a big point for us. I don’t think we will come up against a side that good after the split.”
Mckay had a goal every two games record before joining Wigan Athletic in January 2015 in a move lucrative, but deleterious to career fortunes.
Broadly written off after successive relegations on loan at Dundee United and Caley Thistle, the 29-year-old was fading fast under Owen Coyle before Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson took temporary charge.
Prospects weren’t helped at all by a niggling long-term injury problem.“For me, I feel like my season is just getting started,” Mckay said.
“There are only five games left which I’m a bit disappointed about. But it will be a massive five games and, hopefully, I can play a big role in them and help the club stay in the Premiership.”