THE disbelief was universal, right across Easter Road.
No-one could quite believe what they had just witnessed. They were wide-eyed, trying to take it all in. Only the reactions were in violent contrast: for Hamilton Academical there was pandemonium, jubilation, their senses scrambled as their players ran this way and that across the pitch, racing to each other to celebrate an astonishing final kick - final save, as it turned out - of the Scottish season.
The team they said was down and out, beaten 2-0 in the first leg of this extraordinary play-off, pulled off the resurrection to end them all. Heroics from Jason Scotland and Tony Andreu to level the tie and force extra-time, heroics from goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert to save two penalties when the drama carried all the way to a shoot-out.
Loading article content
There would hardly have been a punter in the land who would have bet on Hibs to have the bottle to win on penalties. In front of the Famous Five Stand - another little abuse of the club's great history - they mucked it up as it was utterly inevitable that they would. Kevin Thomson's opening spot-kick was saved and so, decisively, was Jason Cummings' last. Hamilton put theirs away like they were tossing grape seeds into a bin: Grant Gillespie, Andreu, Mickael Antoine-Curier, Scotland, as calm as could be.
The Lanarkshire side, down since 2011, are back in the top flight. Others will gripe about their small support and question how much they will bring to the SPFL Premiership. They will bring players with more quality, conviction and goals than Hibs possess, that's for sure.
They played with an infectious confidence and verve yesterday that could not have contrasted more vividly with the fear and timidity Hibs. They have been on a slide which had lasted for months, seemed to have been arrested by the first-leg result, and yesterday picked up again to sweep them out of the league.
The home fans had turned out in force, over 17,000 of them. They thought they were coming to celebrate, to enjoy the relief of survival. Frankly, they looked stunned by Cuthbert's final save. Anger gushed out of many of them, there were chants for the heads of Terry Butcher and Rod Petrie. A couple of hundred soon gathered outside the stadium entrance. "We want our club back," they chanted. Not since 1999 had Hibs been out of the top flight and now they have been cast into the second tier when it will be harder than ever to escape. Rangers and Hearts are in there as a consequence of financial mismanagement; Hibs went straight down because they have not been good enough.
Remember that first leg five days ago? Remember how the 2-0 away win washed away all of Hibs' troubles? That turned out to be a cruel illusion. Hibs regressed to the hesitant, rushing team of recent weeks. They were clearly fearful of the red-and-white shirts buzzing their penalty area. The objective was to deny Hamilton the encouragement of an early goal, but that was beyond them. Their resistance lasted for only 13 minutes.
The goal was a disaster. Ryan McGivern was under no pressure when he whacked a poor clearance straight at Ali Crawford. Instantly Hibs were in trouble. Crawford hit the ball to Jon Routledge, who squared it for Scotland. He turned Michael Nelson to rifle a low shot through Ben Williams. Easter Road gulped.
Hamilton came again. Louis Longridge got in behind McGivern and tried a shot which Williams saved with his outstretched foot. When he had to save again at Scotland's feet at the start of the second half it showed that Hamilton's momentum had not been interrupted by the interval.
Hibs had lost Danny Haynes to an injury after only six minutes, although substitute Alex Harris offered similar width and threat. Their problem was the poor quality of their passing, their first touches, everything.
In the second half the substitutions alone told a story. Hamilton put on two forwards and their player-manager, Alex Neil, desperately trying to force an equaliser. Hibs' replaced Harris with Kevin Thomson and Paul Heffernan with Owain Tudur Jones: two creative players off for two defensive midfielders. They were playing to contain, playing for defeat as long as it was by only 1-0.
Just 75 seconds from survival, the strategy collapsed on them. Scotland burrowed through Hibs and cut the ball back for Andreu to slash a finish across goal and inside the far post.
At last the tie was level, but there was no equality here. The teams were heading in different directions. Hamilton's future is buoyant. Hibs are down, and who knows when they will be back?