IRONICALLY, it was through a splendid, almost miraculous, piece of defending by Gary Caldwell that Hibs’ creative juices finally began to flow against Motherwell.
Until then, Tony Mowbray’s free-flowing footballers had run dry against Terry Butcher’s team in an arid tactical battle in which the Motherwell manager outwitted his counterpart for the first hour.
Coming into the game after four defeats in a row, Butcher understandably wanted to keep the match as tight as possible. After nullifying Hibs in the first half it seemed to be working and as the second progressed Motherwell looked the more likely to score.
In the 56th minute a Jim Paterson shot had looked goalbound until it was deflected inadvertently by team-mate David Clarkson in the six-yard box, but Motherwell’s counter-attacking tactics looked as if they would finally pay off in the 63rd minute. Martyn Corrigan, in an unfamiliar midfield role, sprung the Hibs offside trap and broke into the box before squaring to substitute Jim Fitzpatrick, whose shot beat Simon Brown, but somehow Caldwell materialised on the goalline to hook the ball out from under the bar. It was an astonishing clearance and no-one was more amazed than Fitzpatrick that it had not gone in.
Hibs should have been behind and they knew it, but did not need any prompting to take advantage of the let-off. Ignited into action, they drove forward at Motherwell with a furious pace that led the visitors to pick up three bookings for Stephen Craigan, Corrigan and Paul Quinn in a five-minute spell. Then a bullet header by Guillaume Beuzelin whistled past in the 74th minute before the crucial breakthrough goal finally arrived.
As Hibs maintained their surging tempo, Dean Shiels switched the play to the left, Derek Riordan laid the ball back to Stephen Glass who sent in a superb dipping cross at pace to the near post for Ian Murray to meet flush on his forehead and direct past Gordon Marshall. There was no coming back for Motherwell despite all their efforts, with Caldwell immense in the centre of Hibs defence and more than ably assisted by Colin Murdock.
Both sides had obviously been especially keen to get a result: Mowbray’s so they could regain the form that had set them on an eight-game run unbeaten, while Butcher’s side were getting desperate at the prospect of extending a losing run.
Hibs were finding chances hard to come by despite the introduction for the first time this season of Ian Murray in the middle of the park. After 15 minutes, the captain’s break from midfield and surge towards the box put Motherwell under pressure for the first time, with Richie Foran cynically pulling him down to receive a yellow card. It was worth it as Riordan’s resulting free-kick was rather impotent.
Meanwhile, Motherwell were waiting patiently for the counter attack and twice they almost caught Hibs cold – in the 28th and 40th minutes – with both chances falling to Paterson. On the first occasion, his shot was just not accurate enough at the back post. However, his second attempt was blocked by Caldwell, albeit the Hibs defender did not know what had hit him after a flowing move involving Clarkson, Alex Burns and Paul Quinn had peeled Hibs apart. With caution predominating, Hibs were the more thwarted side, turning in a disappointing performance by the standards they have set themselves leading up to the match.
Finally, as half-time approached, Glass almost broke the deadlock with a 25-yard shot that had Marshall launching himself across the goal to save.
It was a portent of things to come as a similarly splendid delivery for Murray’s goal in the 78th minute was to tip the game Hibs’ way.