With seven minutes to go in their third match since Boxing Day, it appeared Hibernian would end a frantic festive period two points behind Dundee United in the SPFL Premiership, only for two late goals to deny them a fourth straight win. Yet for all that he cut a crestfallen figure afterwards, manager Terry Butcher would still concede the point was valuable for the Easter Road side, but it may carry greater currency at Tannadice.
Jackie McNamara had insisted that three consecutive defeats over Christmas and New Year were not "a cause for huge concern" but it would have been difficult for the United manager to remain resolute in that opinion in the aftermath of a fourth successive loss, particularly as there was no red card or dubious penalty decision to mask another poor performance from his tired young team.
The late revival was perhaps belated justification for his decision to make eight changes to his team for the meeting with St Johnstone last weekend and, had he done the same, Butcher might have been celebrating another victory. "The last 15 minutes told on my players because they put so much into the derby," Butcher said. "United have had 24 hours' extra rest and a derby is a big thing mentally and physically."
Understandably, then, this was a game characterised by a lethargy that contributed to a sterile opening half-hour. Hibs sought to make use of their superior brawn at set pieces, while United relied more on breaks from midfield, but neither brought any reward. Hibs' James Collins and Michael Nelson were thwarted after connecting with Liam Craig corners; Nelson's effort being headed off the line by John Rankin and Collins' attempt being parried by Radoslaw Cierzniak. United did have the ball in the net, but Ryan Gauld was adjudged to have been offside before squaring for Stuart Armstrong.
Given how tight it was, then, it was perhaps no surprise that the opener came from a mistake as United strove to play out of defence in the closing stages of the half. Mark Wilson's attempted return pass to John Souttar was cut out by Paul Heffernan, who shunted it into the path of Craig, and the midfielder strode into the box before lashing low past Cierzniak to afford Hibs the advantage.
To suggest the lead was merited would be an exaggeration but the visitors did look the more organised and robust side. So far behind United that they were barely quoted a fortnight ago, the work of Butcher and Maurice Malpas - combined with United's failure to take anything from their previous three matches - had allowed the Easter Road club to edge to within five points and establish themselves in the upper half of the division. Wins over struggling sides such as Ross County, Kilmarnock and Hearts were an understandable dividend of Butcher's appointment but this game ought to have provided stiffer scrutiny of their revival and of a defence whose record is second only to Celtic's. Instead, though, United threatened only sporadically until those final moments.
Led by Brian Graham, who replaced the injured Nadir Ciftci just before the break, the Tannadice side's vaunted attackers offered precious little; Armstrong flickered but both Gauld and Gary Mackay-Steven were peripheral. Consequently, chances were scant. Graham was crowded out after chesting down a Paul Paton pass, Armstrong shot over and Gauld scuffed wide before his underwhelming display in front of Roberto Martinez, the Everton manager, ended just before the hour.
It appeared, too, that United's hopes went with the teenager, given Hibs doubled their advantage within a minute of his departure when Craig rolled a calm penalty past Cierzniak after a crass push by Souttar on Collins. "I was fearing the worst when it went in," said McNamara, pointing to a handful of decisions by referee Steven McLean that pricked his ire. "The frustrating thing was they hadn't caused us any problems; it was self-inflicted with a mistake and a soft penalty. Confidence can sap from things like that but they showed desire to get something."
While not quite reinvigorating United, the concession did prompt a response. Ben Williams made a reaction save to prevent Paul Hanlon's swipe at a Mackay-Steven cross from flashing past him but the goalkeeper would be beaten with seven minutes remaining. Graham managed to dig out a low cross that substitute David Goodwillie calmly converted from six yards. It was the striker's last game at Tannadice before his loan from Blackburn Rovers expires and he marked the occasion by throwing his shirt into the crowd.
"We'll need to see what happens this week," said McNamara when asked if the agreement with the Sky Bet Championship club might be extended. "We're a bit light up there."
There was still time for a final flourish from the striker, though.
United had been energised and Hibs enervated by the goal and, despite their valiant efforts, the visitors' resistance folded as the game ticked into the 90th minute. Goodwillie plucked a Sean Dillon ball out of the air and lashed at Williams, only for Graham to jab out a foot to divert the ball home. "It's unlike us to lose goals in the manner we did but we'll learn from it," Butcher said. "The dressing room is still in one piece and the doors are intact because they gave me everything they can and got a point away at a top-six team."