When Paul Cairney was booked for diving in the penalty area in the second half, some Kilmarnock fans declared it justice. The Hibernian player won a penalty in September when the teams last met, but Kenny Shiels was adamant at the time that Cairney went down easily, and the incident was pored over as the Kilmarnock manager was so indignant.
It was the player who was riled yesterday, not least because the Kilmarnock defender involved, Michael Nelson, admitted catching him. Referee Bobby Madden was well placed, but his verdict seemed harsh. Cairney had pushed the ball infield before Nelson caught him, and television evidence appeared to show that Cairney had been fouled. Even if Madden did not believe the incident deserved a spot kick, it seemed harsh to book the payer for diving.
"The boy caught me. I'm an honest player, I wouldn't go down easily," Cairney said. "[The referee] thought it was a dive, but it definitely wasn't; I've seen the replay, it's a stonewaller. Maybe [the fuss Kilmarnock made the last time played a role]. I don't know what the ref's position was, but I told him to look back at it on TV."
Pat Fenlon, the Hibernian manager, chose not to dwell on the subject, although he was frustrated that the booking carried Cairney over the disciplinary threshold, meaning that he will receive a suspension in the new year.
He said that "maybe I need to moan a bit more and get us a few [decisions]," but his tone was amiable. His side had, after all, overcome a poor start to earn a point. "These things happen," he added. "I'm not one who is going to come in and criticise the referee."
The teams were so well matched that the game became a spectacle, even if there was no outstanding individual on display. Both managers must have been infuriated as much as satisfied, as accomplished passages of play were combined with hapless moments. The flaws made the occasion compelling.
Ben Williams, the Hibs goalkeeper, made an excellent one-handed diving save to deny Bojan Perez, but would have expected basic competence from his teammates once the ball was cleared. The defenders allowed Paul Heffernan to drift into space and when the ball was returned towards the penalty area, the Kilmarnock striker deftly chipped it over Williams and into the net.
The visitors were briefly perplexed. Only six minutes had passed and, despite their organisation and sprightliness in possession, they were obliged to scramble in defence. Heffernan was an elusive threat, and he found more room in the penalty area when James Dayton evaded Alan Maybury to cross, but the striker headed just wide.
Heffernan did not restrict his influence to the penalty area, and his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play was vital. Yet the game did not merit a sense of superiority among the Kilmarnock players. They generated more chances, in the first half at least, but could not wholly subdue Leigh Griffiths.
The striker is technically adept, but it was his willingness to work in areas far from the goalmouth that made him so important. His individualism was also evident, though, and his fierce strike from a free-kick 25 yards out that flew just over the crossbar was Hibs' first meaningful attempt on goal.
He was able to be an adept provider, and it was his delivery across the face of goal – after he had been played through by Cairney's well-judged pass – that allowed Eoin Doyle to hook the ball into the net. By then, Hibs merited an equaliser, with Gary Deegan in particular bringing strength and presence to the midfield.
The open nature of the game could not survive half-time as both managers naturally sought to limit their team's wayward tendencies. Kilmarnock were not immediately robust, though, and James Fowler had to head the ball off the line after Cairney had chipped over Bell. The defending was alert, but Cairney regretted the caution that stopped him hitting his shot first-time, with the Kilmarnock defenders still unready.
"We never got a grip of the game and could have defended better at the equaliser," said Jimmy Nicholl, the Kilmarnock assistant manager. "We played below our standards."
It was a measure of the renewed discipline of both sides that, the penalty claim apart, attacking incidents were long-range efforts. Griffiths and Dayton both troubled the respective goalkeepers from distance but there was to be no breakthrough, only the aftermath of another penalty dispute. "It would probably be given five times out of 10," admitted Nelson. "But the booking was harsh."