Hibs headed for the European exit door but with their heads held high on a dramatic night in Copenhagen as Neil Lennon’s battlers came within a whisker of pulling off a shock result against crack Danish outfit Brondby.
Few had given the Easter Road side any hope after they’d lost the first leg in Edinburgh seven days earlier, but the Capital side stunned their hosts as skipper David Gray levelled this Europa League second qualifying round tie.
Thirty minutes of extra-time couldn’t settle things, leaving matters to be decided on penalties, but John McGinn missed with Hibs’ first effort from the spot and although Paul Hanlon, Grant Holt and Martin Boyle converted theirs, the Danes were clinical, rattling all five past goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw.
It was as cruel blow for the Hibees, who went so close, but Lennon and the 1000 fans who made the journey would be rightly proud of the Championship side’s efforts over 240 minutes and more.
Otso Virtanen paid a heavy price for his blunder in gifting Brondby their 16th-second winner at Easter Road seven days earlier, the Finnish Under-21 goalkeeper axed from the starting line-up, leaving Ross Laidlaw to face a baptism of fire in his first game for the Easter Road club.
It was the 24-year-old former Raith Rovers player’s first competitive match since losing 5-4 to Annan Athletic while on loan at Elgin City in April last year. It was a brave decision by Lennon, but one which was vindicated as Laidlaw pulled off a fantastic fingertip save to prevent Brondby skipper Johan Larsson scoring what would have been the winner as the game moved into added on time.
The Hibs boss also opted for a 3-5-2 formation, Liam Fontaine joining Darren McGregor and Hanlon in the backline, a switch which saw Boyle drop to the bench as Hibs were cheered on by many of their supporters – who had enjoyed a heavy police escort as they snaked through the streets of the western suburbs of the Danish capital to the ground in glorious early evening sunshine.
Lennon was forced to watch from high in the Brondby Stadion, sat between George Craig, Hibs chief of football operations, and Graeme Mathie, the club’s head of player identification and recruitment, the former Celtic player and manager forced from the away dugout by an automatic one-match touchline ban having been sent off seven days ago.
As such, Lennon could do no more than look on intently, all his work done in the team hotel before departure, his trust put in assistant Garry Parker, joined by Hibs academy coaching manager Eddie May and youth coach Grant Murray.
A measure of the scale of the task Hibs were facing was evident from the fact that in their 61-year association with European football, the Edinburgh club had never recovered from losing the first leg at home and, indeed, the only Scottish sides to have done so were Celtic and Motherwell in 2009, against Dinamo Moscow and Llanelli respectively.
Brondby attempted to make the same supercharged start of a week earlier, overloading the right hand side of their team at kick-off, five players lining up to head immediately for the danger area, but this time round it was a ploy which didn’t work.
The vociferous home support were determined to influence proceedings as much as possible, howling their indignation whenever contact was made with one of their players and roaring with delight when Romanian referee Ionut Avram declared Marvin Bartley had fouled Teemu Pukki right on the edge of the visiting side’s penalty area, Larsson failing to test Laidlaw with an effort which zipped narrowly over.
The Danes themselves, though, were a big physical side and in this their fifth competitive match they looked slicker and sharper, closing down quickly and not allowing Hibs to settle on the ball, while any attempts to get forward were thwarted by that back four which had notched up three consecutive clean sheets and were determined to add another to that tally.
It was clear from the opening half-hour it was going to be a long evening for the men in green, strikers Holt and Jason Cummings rarely getting even a sniff of the ball with those behind them unable to retain possession at all.
However, to be fair, Lennon’s players had prevented Laidlaw from being tested in the way he might have been expecting until Christian Norgaard fired in a powerful shot from 25 yards, which the goalkeeper pushed over the bar.
Hibs were going to have to make the most of any chances which came their way and John McGinn’s clever turn on the bye-line created their first clear sighting of goal, his cross finding Gray unmarked but he was unable to direct his header on goal.
It was, though, a more encouraging start to the second period for the Scottish Cup holders and the Danish support suddenly became concerned at their side not getting it all their own way.
And that anxiety grew even greater in the 62nd minute as Gray, the hero of that memorable day at Hampden, hauled the tie level, the wing-back the furthest forward as McGregor prodded on Dylan McGeouch’s corner.
Gray just managed to get the outside of his right boot to the ball, steering it towards the left hand corner of Frederic Ronnow’s net, the goalkeeper getting his hand to it but unable to prevent the shot slipping past him, to send those Hibs fans behind him delirious.
But Gray’s fairytale came to a premature end, hauled down by Norgaard as he raced past the Danish holding midfielder, suffering an injury to his right arm which saw him replaced by Boyle.
The home side’s frustration was boiling over, assistant referee Valentin Avrum pelted by a salvo of water bottles after giving a decision against them, an action which will land the Danes in trouble with UEFA.
And they were even more incensed three minutes from the end of regulation time as Pukki raced onto Larsson’s through ball, the former Celtic forward brought down by McGregor who breathed a sigh of relief when referee Avrum only produced a yellow card before refusing to award a corner when Laidlaw got the merest of touches on Larsson’s netbound shot.
So into extra time it went, Hibs surviving a good shout for a penalty when McGinn went into the back of substitute Corlu Rezan and riding their luck again when Andrew Hjulsager’s effort took the slightest of deflections to carry the ball inches wide with Laidlaw beaten.
But the sides couldn’t be separated after 240 minutes of action – something which would have seemed hardly believable given the start Hibs endured at home – and so penalties it was. Unfortunately for Hibs, it proved just one step too far.
Brondby: (4-1-2-1-2): Ronnow, Larsson, Albrechsten, Rocker, Crone; Norgaard; Hjulsager, Phiri (Corlu 102); Jakobsen (Holst 64); Wilczek, Pukki (Stuckler 115). Unused subs: Juelsgaard, Austin, Toppel, Da Silva.
Hibs (3-5-2): Laidlaw; McGregor, Hanlon, Fontaine; Gray (Boyle 77), McGeouch, Bartley (Forster 104), McGinn, Stevenson, Cummings (Keatings 90+1), Holt. Unused subs: Virtanen, Crane, Stanton, Harris.
Referee: Marius Avram (Romania)