SO, there is to be no final-day relegation drama in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League this season after all. Dunfermline Athletic had made a decent go of it after the split – reducing the gap between themselves and second-bottom Hibernian from seven points to three at one point – but, needing to win at Easter Road last night to take the scrap to the wire, they conceded three first-half goals and never really threatened any sort of comeback.
They become just the third side, after St Mirren and Gretna, to be relegated in their first season after promotion since the inception of the SPL in 1998. The Dunfermline board had hoped sacking Jim McIntyre late in the season and replacing him with Jim Jefferies would bring about an unlikely resurrection after an awkward campaign but this was a miracle beyond even the capabilities of an experienced old pro like Jefferies.
He will look to rebuild in the first division and have a crack at taking them back up, although, given the current mess of the SPL as they try to sort out how to deal with a newco Rangers, and the prospect of derby games against Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and Falkirk, there may be more than a few Dunfermline supporters not exactly grief-stricken at the prospect of at least one more season back in the first division.
This has been far from a vintage year for Hibs but it could yet become a great one, should they overcome Hearts in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden on May 19. Manager Pat Fenlon had barred all talk of that game while the relegation matter remained unresolved but with that now put to bed, it seems the build-up to one of the most eagerly anticipated cup finals in years can now begin in earnest.
A draw last night would have been good enough to secure Hibs' top-flight status with a game to spare but any suspicion Fenlon might have been tempted to play cautiously with that in mind was obliterated within the first 15 minutes. By that point Hibs, previously without a home league win to their name since September 28, were three goals in front and the relegation issue settled.
Dunfermline shoulders visibly sunk, their fate sealed before they had even really got going. Gifting soft goals has been their problem all season, so it seemed appropriate that it was poor defending that would prove to be the final nail in their SPL coffin.
They actually looked bright moving forward early on, passing well and creating chances, but it was a different story at the other end where they looked like conceding any time Hibs ventured forward.
To borrow an old Glasgow expression, this Dunfermline defence couldn't keep weans out of a close. In a frantic opening passage, Hibs were able to cut their opponents open almost at will.
Dunfermline needed to keep it tight early on if they were to have a chance of forcing the win they needed but, instead, they conceded after five minutes, let in a second six minutes later then gave away a penalty that Hibs converted to all but seal the win with only 15 minutes played.
A contentious fourth goal late in the game – television pictures showed Paul Hanlon's volley off the crossbar didn't cross the line – further confirmed this was not to be Dunfermline's night.
Hibs' opening goal came from a set piece. Tom Soares flighted in the free kick that the ever-impressive James McPake flicked on and Matt Doherty was allowed to breeze in unmarked at the back post to direct a header across goalkeeper Chris Smith and into the far corner of the net.
There was little time for repercussions among the Dunfermline defenders, however, as just six minutes later they had conceded another. Isaiah Osbourne started the move, threading a great pass through to Doherty who shook off two feeble attempts to tackle him to send a cross across the box. There he found Eoin Doyle standing in splendid isolation, the Irishman completely untroubled as he nodded in what must surely be one of the simplest goals of his career.
Hibs pushed for a third and it came from the penalty spot after Austin McCann had impeded Hanlon's run into the box, Garry O'Connor confidently striking the penalty past Smith.
The scoreline undoubtedly flattered Hibs but Dunfermline only had themselves to blame for some abject defending. The visitors attempted to rally but lacked the efficiency of their opponents in the penalty box. Jordan McMillan should have reduced the deficit when Mark Kerr played him in – Mark Brown did well to block his shot – before the same player headed a Paddy Boyle cross into the goal- keeper's arms.
One of those really needed to go in if Dunfermline were to pull off the most unlikely of comebacks. Instead, the smiles on the faces of the Hibs supporters as they made their way for their half-time pie told their own story.
The second half was predictably tame given the circumstances, although there was still time for Doyle to post a late contender for miss of the season when he failed to connect with Osbourne's cross from a matter of feet, before Hanlon completed the scoring 10 minutes from time.