THIS turned out to be good night for Hibernian in the end.
It was far from their best performance of the season, but the hard-fought win stopped the rot after successive defeats and lifted them back into second place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. With Hearts being dismantled by Celtic at Tynecastle, it surely leaves Pat Fenlon's side in better shape than their rivals for what should be a fiery William Hill Scottish Cup tie between the two Edinburgh teams at Easter Road on Sunday.
All the action from an otherwise forgettable match came in the closing stages. It will not be a period fondly recalled by St Johnstone. They missed a penalty, had their manager Steve Lomas sent to the stand for kicking over a water bottle, fell behind to a shot their goalkeeper maybe should have saved, had a player stretchered off, then had another sent off.
It all flashed by in a blur following 80 minutes when almost nothing of any consequence took place. David Wotherspoon was the player who got the late madness underway. The Hibs player had two nibbles at Dave Mackay as he tried to halt the St Johnstone player's run into the box and the second one made contact. Referee Craig Thomson awarded the penalty but Nigel Hasselbaink's kick was brilliantly kept out by Ben Williams, who sprung to his feet quickly to keep out Liam Craig's rebound.
That was the last action Lomas saw from the dug-out and, by the time he had taken his seat in the stand, his team were behind. Leigh Griffiths, who had been left so isolated in attack he would have needed a loudhailer to talk to his team-mates, squeezed a pass through to Paul Cairney and his low shot found a way past Alan Mannus from around 12 yards.
There was more drama to follow. David Robertson departed on a stretcher with a suspected broken leg not long after coming on as a substitute and when play finally got back underway, Griffiths, in a move not too dissimilar to last week's Champions League game between Nordsjaelland and Shakhtar Donetsk, was a little too eager while chasing a drop ball that was booted back toward the St Johnstone goal. Mackay, in particular, was irate and, as play raged on, he squared up to Griffiths and seemed to thrust his head in the direction of the striker. That was the view Thomson took as well and the red card was flourished in the St Johnstone captain's direction.
The final whistle followed not long after, allowing those inside McDiarmid Park to take a breath and try to fathom out just what had happened in that dramatic denouement. Lomas, understandably, seemed somewhat shellshocked as he tried to analyse what he had just witnessed. "It was an eventful second half," he said with a degree of understatement. "David Robertson looks like he's got a nasty, nasty injury, which just about puts the cherry on the cake. It looked just like a block tackle and David's come off second best. It's very disappointing for the lad and for us."
On the penalty, Lomas was surprised to see Hasselbaink volunteer to take it. "I was a bit perplexed as to why he was taking it as Dave Mackay is normally our penalty taker and I certainly felt that with Nigel not long on it maybe should have been one of the senior boys taking it. In the heat of the moment, though, he fancied it and we can't critisise him for stepping up."
The conclusion was as frenetic as the remainder of it had been desperate. Both teams had the opportunity to go top of the league with a win, and although Celtic's victory made that null and void, there was little in the first 80 minutes to suggest it was much of a motivating factor. Despite chatter of late about the reinvigoration of the division with Rangers missing and Celtic, before last night, struggling, it seemed the prospect of leading it did little to excite the fans either, with only 3266 turning out to see, potentially, one side claiming the temporary mantle of best in the land. Given only around 2300 were there to see the home side, one can only surmise there must be a raft of more appealing attractions in Perth of a wintry Wednesday night.
St Johnstone were the better side for most of the game even if they had precious little to show for their efforts. The bustling Gregory Tade drew fouls from Ryan McGivern and Paul Hanlon – both were booked – but it was not until the final minute of the first half that they came close to a goal. Unsurprisingly it came from a dead ball, Craig's free kick taking a nick off the defensive wall and clattering into the crossbar.
Hibs could only have dreamt of such an opportunity. With 13 goals this season it seemed a curious ploy not to provide Griffiths with better service and support, although it was he who had the visitors' first effort on target, a free kick from wide on the touchline that was gathered by Mannus. Then came all the late drama.
"That's a really big three points for us," said Fenlon. "We played really well on Saturday and got nothing from the game and didn't play as well tonight and got three points."