League Cup finalists Hibernian came crashing back down to earth with a fifth straight Scottish Premiership defeat at bottom club Ross County.
After a goalless first half, substitute Blair Spittal’s 72nd-minute cross evaded everyone in the area before nestling in Matt Macey’s far corner to earn a first home league win since May.
The visitors, who had Christian Doidge sent off with six minutes remaining and Martin Boyle dismissed after the final whistle, looked laboured in the second half after Sunday’s semi-final win.
The five-game losing streak is Hibs’ worst top-flight run since 2013-14 and leaves them seventh, although Jack Ross’ men have two games in hand on the four teams placed above them to try rectify their form.
“I don’t think we were poor, I don’t think we were exceptional,” Ross told BBC Scotland post-match. “But I don’t think we necessarily deserved to lose the game. I think the only opportunities to come against us were in the latter stages when we were down to 10 men. I think prior to that we were comfortable.
“First half, we created good opportunities, but we don’t take them. Second half, we huffed and puffed a lot and maybe ran out of a little energy after Sunday.
“So performance-level okay, but we need to be better than okay to win games and we need to get back to doing that as quickly as possible in terms of the league.”
County – who had three glaring chances to make the win more comfortable – move to within a point of Dundee in 11th place and four behind Livingston in 10th.
After Sunday’s heroics, Hibs fans would have still been peeling themselves off the ceiling by the time referee Gavin Duncan blew the first whistle in Dingwall.
But Ross stressed pre-match how vital it was that his players got right back to business as they aimed to put an end to a wretched four-game losing run in the league.
Exactly four weeks on from their last Premiership game – a 3-1 defeat by Celtic at Easter Road – the visitors got off to a slow start, as did County – who were playing their first game since losing at Rangers on 7 November.
It took until just after the 10-minute mark for there to be an effort – and that effort should have resulted in a goal.
Boyle and Kevin Nisbet, who dovetailed so well at Hampden on Sunday, combined again as Boyle crossed for the Scotland striker. Nisbet got his head on the ball but could only divert his attempt straight into the arms of Ashley Maynard-Brewer.
And just minutes later the former Dunfermline Athletic forward squandered another headed opportunity as Hibs showed signs of clicking into gear down the right.
This time Chris Cadden crossed for the striker, who directed narrowly wide. The free-scoring Nisbet of last term may very well have been chasing a hat-trick if those chances were presented to him this time last year.
Jordan White had the chance to make the Hibs striker pay for his poor finishing with a header of his own up the other end. But like Nisbet, the County forward passed up a golden chance from Joseph Hungbo’s wicked free-kick delivery.
On the rare occasions Hibs – and Boyle in particular – turned the screw, County struggled.
Great work from the Australia international had the home defence scrambling and resulted in a pass to Cadden, who provided another dangerous ball. Paul Hanlon was the target and his low right-foot finish took a nick before striking a post.
But as the second half progressed, the home side began to gain momentum as the visitors faded.
Hungbo, who was dangerous throughout, forced Macey down to his right to parry wide before Spittal fortuitously gave County the lead after his low cross from the left trundled all the way into the far corner.
Thing went from bad to worse for Hibs when Doidge, thrown on for Nisbet, was sent off 17 minutes after his introduction for a nasty challenge on David Cancola.
And while County’s goal came in fortunate circumstances, they were not fortunate to claim three points. The victory should have been more convincing after Spittal, Hungbo and Clarke all passed up one-on-one opportunities.
Hibs were reduced to nine men after the whistle when Boyle was shown a straight red card for something he said to the referee, meaning Ross will go into Sunday’s trip to McDiarmid Park without his talisman as well as Doidge.
Man of the match – Joseph Hungbo
What did we learn?
After a four-game losing run, Ross would have hoped Sunday’s League Cup semi-final win over Rangers could have been a springboard for his side to regain form.
But defeat in Dingwall is a reality check for the Leith club, who now have 11 games to contend with in 40 days.
For Hibs to turn this around they need Nisbet to start firing, especially with Boyle and Doidge now suspended. The Scotland striker has just four goals to his name in all competitions – this time last year he was in double figures.
Too often this term, County have been involved in basketball-like games. Before Wednesday, the Highlanders’ last four home league games saw 20 goals scored – eight for and 12 against.
But three points coupled with a third clean sheet of the league season is massive for Mackay, and with the next four games coming against Dundee United, St Mirren, St Johnstone and Dundee, it gives County the chance to build momentum.
What did they say?
Ross County manager Malky Mackay: “The fans have been watching us play well but not get the results. I’m a bit disappointed that we did not capitalise on the chances to make it more comfortable.
“But I am delighted at the application in the second half and I told them that if they showed that, the chances would come and they did.”
Hibernian head coach Jack Ross: “At the time, I felt it [Doidge’s red card] was very harsh in terms of a ball bouncing in between two players, but the referee has told me it’s for violent conduct, which I will need to see if I agree with and if I don’t then we will appeal.
“I know it’s [Boyle’s red card] for something the referee says Martin said to him, but Martin says he didn’t, so it’s one person’s word against the other’s. The referee usually seems to win in that case, so we will see how that one pans out as well.”
Both sides return to action on Saturday (15:00 GMT) as County welcome Dundee United and Hibs go to St Johnstone.
- 2RandallBooked at 36mins
- 22TillsonBooked at 44minsSubstituted forCancolaat 62′minutes
- 17Charles-CookSubstituted forSpittalat 72′minutes
- 26WhiteSubstituted forWatsonat 81′minutes
- 32CampbellSubstituted forAllanat 76′minutes
- 3DoigSubstituted forGullanat 81′minutes
- 15NisbetBooked at 16minsSubstituted forDoidgeat 67′minutesBooked at 84mins
- 10BoyleBooked at 90mins
- Gavin Duncan
Match ends, Ross County 1, Hibernian 0.
Martin Boyle (Hibernian) is shown the red card.
Second Half ends, Ross County 1, Hibernian 0.
Attempt saved. Harry Clarke (Ross County) right footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the bottom right corner.
Attempt saved. Joseph Hungbo (Ross County) left footed shot from the left side of the box is saved in the bottom left corner. Assisted by Alex Iacovitti.
Corner, Hibernian. Conceded by Jack Baldwin.
Attempt missed. Blair Spittal (Ross County) right footed shot from the centre of the box is too high. Assisted by Ross Callachan.
Martin Boyle (Hibernian) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Harrison Paton (Ross County).
Christian Doidge (Hibernian) is shown the red card for violent conduct.
Foul by Christian Doidge (Hibernian).
David Cancola (Ross County) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Substitution, Ross County. Keith Watson replaces Jordan White.
Substitution, Hibernian. James Gullan replaces Josh Doig.
Corner, Ross County. Conceded by Paul Hanlon.
Substitution, Hibernian. Scott Allan replaces Josh Campbell.
Attempt missed. Joseph Hungbo (Ross County) left footed shot from outside the box is just a bit too high.
Goal! Ross County 1, Hibernian 0. Blair Spittal (Ross County) right footed shot from long range on the left to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Harrison Paton.
Substitution, Ross County. Blair Spittal replaces Regan Charles-Cook.
Foul by Darren McGregor (Hibernian).