IT should have come as no surprise. Martin Boyle, so often the difference-maker for Hibernian, may not have started the Edinburgh Derby but he certainly had the final say.
The winger had barely been at the club for a day but it was the Easter Road talisman who came off the bench to snatch a last-gasp equaliser to cancel out Lawrence Shankland’s first-half strike to ensure his manager had something to show for his first encounter with Hearts.
“It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff, isn’t it?” Lee Johnson observed. “If you wrote a comic and he was the star of the show, I’m not sure you can write it better than that.
“It’s a sliding doors moment and it’s important for our journey that we continue the momentum, to continue the belief.
“Two games unbeaten, two games with 90-plus minute goals. All of a sudden the boys are lifted during the week and we can go into the next important game with a nice vibe.”
The home side started brightly in a sun-soaked Leith as they went about applying some early pressure. A neat one-two released Chris Cadden down the right and although striker Elie Youan connected with it, Craig Gordon gathered with minimal fuss. The same man went close a few minutes later after being played in down the left but the angle was too narrow and Gordon was able to divert it wide.
Hibs were enjoying most of the ball and Cadden’s deliveries in particular were causing the visitors a few headaches. A drilled ball across the face of goal was begging to be turned in but no one could get on the end of the wide man’s cross.
Hearts were racking up the corners at the other end without truly troubling David Marshall in the home goal, and Robbie Neilson’s men were unable to capitalise on any of them. But then, just as the Hibs pressure started to relent, the men from Gorgie took full advantage.
Barrie McKay, impressive throughout, scarpered down the left wing before cutting back on himself and dinking the ball beyond the Hibs backline. Shankland got on the end of it; the Hibs players contended he handled the ball to get it under control but referee John Beaton deemed the striker to have chested the ball. Play was allowed to continue and the former Dundee United centre-forward showed great composure to slide the ball through Marshall’s legs and beyond the despairing lunge of Marijan Cabraja.
Johnson’s men were down, sure, but they were not out. A Joe Newell free-kick from deep found Youan – who repeatedly caught the eye as he stretched the Hearts defence – and although the forward’s delicate chip beat the goalie, it was hastily hacked off the line.
Only some remarkable goalkeeping from Gordon ensured Hibs went in at the break trailing. Cadden found Newell in the box with acres of space but the midfielder lashed his effort over the bar and a minute later, Youan’s flicked header – again the result of an inviting Cadden delivery – forced an incredible save from Gordon as the Scotland No.1 flicked the effort wide of the woodwork.
Beaton was becoming an increasingly unpopular figure with the home crowd at Easter Road as a succession of marginal decisions went the way of Hearts, with Ryan Porteous’ booking for a lunge on Boyce prompting an especially vociferous reaction from the stands shortly before half-time.
There were no changes at the break and within minutes of the restart, Hearts could have found themselves 2-0 to the good were it not for more goalkeeping heroics – this time from Marshall. The former Scotland internationalist showed excellent reactions to deny Shankland from close range and although the rebound fell into the path of McKay, the veteran shot-stopper got up quickly to deny him, too.
It wasn’t belong before Johnson turned to his bench in order to bring about a change in impetus. Christian Doidge was the first substitute to enter the fray but it was the introduction of Boyle – who only completed a return to the capital on Saturday – that just about took the roof of Easter Road with 25 minutes to play.
The game became more stop-start at this point as both sets of players struggled to create clear-cut chances. There was no questioning the work-rate of either side but there was a conspicuous lack of guile on show as the contest neared its conclusion. If anything, it was Hearts who looked the greater threat going forward as the opportunities dried up for Hibs.
Marshall had to be alert to bat away a low Jorge Grant strike and the away side spurned an even better chance on 80 minutes when a well-worked counter-attack saw Boyce scarpering up the right wing. The centre-forward’s neat cut-back picked out substitute Nathaniel Atkinson but Marshall was again at hand to tip it behind for a corner.
It was soon kitchen-sink time for Hibs. It looked like Boyle would mark his return with a goal in stoppage time when the Australia internationalist latched onto a punt forward from Marshall, but his effort at goal was deflected behind for a corner.
The Easter Road idol wouldn’t be denied his big moment, though. With the final touch of the match, the 29-year-old was played through and kept his cool to slide the ball under Gordon and ensure a share of the spoils on derby day.
“That’s football,” mused Neilson. “They went gung-ho. We should have put the game to bed.
“In the second half we didn’t do it so it’s always going to be like that, they throw everything, the kitchen sink, at you and they are hoping for that wee break which they got. We just have to learn from it.
“I think we could probably have managed it a wee bit better in that when we got into the advanced areas you’re looking to kill the game. We have some experienced players but we also have a few young guys who are still learning the game.”