A stunning goal from in-form striker Kevin Nisbet earned Hibernian a hard-fought 2-1 victory this afternoon over Cove Rangers at the Balmoral Stadium.
Hibs had to come from behind to take full points from their first-ever encounter with Cove and maintain their 100 per cent start in the Betfred Cup campaign.
Daniel Higgins’ stunning free-kick after 16 minutes saw League One Cove take a well-deserved lead as Hibs struggled to get into their stride during a disappointing first half.
It was a different story after the break with Hibs more like their usual selves. Substitute Jamie Gullan quickly restored parity before Nisbet’s wondergoal – a goal fit enough to win any game - earned victory.
Jack Ross made three changes to the side that defeated Brora Rangers in midweek with Martin Boyle, Christian Doidge and Nisbet returning to the starting XI. Gullan dropped to the bench whilst Paul Hanlon and Jamie Murphy missed out completely due to injury.
Hosts Cove Rangers made a bright opening in the blustery conditions with Connor Scully getting in behind David Gray before his cross was blocked by Darren McGregor for the game’s first corner kick inside the first minute.
From another Cove corner kick moments later defender Scott Ross headed wide as the League One side penned Hibs back in the opening moments.
Despite making a poor start to the game, Hibs should have gone ahead in the match when Boyle’s cross from the right found Doidge unmarked at the back post. With the goal at his mercy the normally prolific striker headed the ball down into the turf and it bounced up and onto the crossbar before being cleared to safety.
Cove were rewarded for their fine start to the match when they found the breakthrough on 16 minutes. Higgins curled a fantastic free-kick finish over the Hibs defensive wall and beyond the grasp of the diving Dillon Barnes to give his side the lead.
Paul Hartley’s side could have increased their advantage on 20 minutes when Scully’s quickly taken free-kick caught Hibs cold and allowed Mitch Megginson a free shot at goal. Thankfully, Hibs keeper Barnes was alert to the danger and made a fine save to deny the former Aberdeen man and then reacted quickly to gather under pressure from Adam Livingstone.
For the second time in the match a Hibs counterattack almost produced a goal for the visitors with Boyle’s dink over the top of the Cove defence releasing Doidge through on goal. The Welsh striker did everything correctly, only to be denied by the fine save from goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie.
All too often Hibs were found guilty of wanting far too much time on the ball and, with Cove pressing quickly, the Easter Road men were forced into making mistakes.
Gullan replaced Drey Wright for the second half, with the summer signing having been touch and go to play in the first place with a niggling injury.
The words of the Hibs boss were likely still ringing in the ears of his players as Hibs returned to the field and started impressively, playing with a pace and purpose that had been lacking in the first 45 minutes.
The Easter Road men could have been level inside three minutes when Doidge set up strike partner Nisbet, who rounded keeper McKenzie only to find the side-netting as he attempted to squeeze the ball in from a tight angle.
A Hibs equaliser was only delayed a matter of minutes as Nisbet found Boyle on the right of the penalty area, with McKenzie racing out to close him down, he squared to Gullan and the substitute slotted into the net for his first goal of the campaign.
At the other end Jamie Masson and Mitch Megginson both saw efforts finish over the crossbar as Cove fired another warning shot that any complacency for the Premiership side would be punished.
Hibernian took the lead on the hour when Hallberg’s cross from the right was hooked over goalkeeper McKenzie and into the top corner of the net by Nisbet. The goal – Nisbet’s seventh of the campaign - was a wonderful finish. He showed incredible technique and vision to get across his marker and produce a composed finish that gave Cove’s McKenzie no chance.
Having turned the game on its head, Hibs pressed for a third goal with substitute Kyle Magennis stinging the hands of McKenzie before the Cove keeper kept out a Doidge header soon after.
Cove attempted to rally late on, and Hibs had to deal with several long balls played into the edge of their penalty area.
Their best opportunity to level came in the final minute when Hallberg’s clearance dropped to Higgins 25-yards from goal and his stunning first-time volley was acrobatically kept out by and equally impressive save from Barnes.
Barnes’ save proved to be the last action of note as Hibernian held on to claim a deserved victory.
Cove Rangers: McKenzie, Ross, Higgins, Graham, Milne, McIntosh, Scully, Yule, Livingstone (Semple 72), Masson, Megginson. Substitutes not used: Leighton, Watson, McAllister, Brown, Demus.
Hibernian: Barnes, Gray, McGregor, Stevenson, Boyle, Hallberg, McGinn (Magennis 59), Mallan, Wright (Gullan 46), Nisbet, Doidge. Substitutes not used: Samson, Mackie, Shanley, Bradley.
Referee: Euan Anderson.
Report: Richard Payne.
Image: Alan Rennie.