Hibs fans, for the first time in a while, will have a smile on their face today. Certainly, things are looking up for the Easter Road side after they made it into the quarter-finals of Scottish Communities League Cup after a 7-6 victory on penalties following a 2-2 draw, a match that could kick-start Hibs’ season and relieves some of the pressure building on manager Colin Calderwood.
For all their failings in the league this season, the Capital side displayed great strength of character to dump the Lanarkshire out on penalties thanks, in no small part, to the heroics of two-goal Garry O’Connor and goalkeeper Mark Brown, both in regulation time and in the shoot-out.
Hibs began brightly on a pristine wide open pitch. David Wotherspoon started and early move in finding Martin Scott, who spread the ball across the face of the box to Leigh Griffiths, who strode in to the penalty area and attempted to catch out Darren Randolph with a quick shift of feet before shooting, but the Motherwell goalkeeper saved well with his legs.
The effervescent Griffiths showed sublime skill to take down a long Richie Towell pass forward with his back to goal but rashly blazed his long-range effort over the crossbar.
The on-loan Wolves striker was full of running, and helped hand Hibs the lead on 19 minutes, whipping in a cross from the outer right-hand of the box for O’Connor to nip in at the near post and prod past Randolph for his fifth goal of the season.
Tom Hateley clambered all over Griffiths inside the box moments later, and the striker belied his slight build to turn past his marker and try to lob the goalkeeper, but Randolph stretched to claw the ball from the air. With a little less of his sheer determination to beat Hateley, Griffiths could easily have crumbled under the strong challenge and claimed a penalty.
As the balance of play began to swing in favour of the Steelmen, the Hibs defence had to look lively to contain the hosts’ winger Chris Humphrey. The pacey wide-man twice gained space on the right to deliver inviting crosses, but Sean O’Hanlon kept his cool to turn the ball behind at the far post for a corner before an assured Brown rose to catch a second cross.
After half an hour, Motherwell did breach the Hibs defence and duly equalised. Hateley’s corner from the right swung deep into the area and Michael Higdon knocked the ball back towards the penalty spot, where Keith Lasley met it first time and netted into the bottom left-hand corner.
Brown did well to parry an effort from Nicky Law and turn away a subsequent piledriver from Michael Higdon, but was helpless to prevent Motherwell taking the lead on 39 minutes. Ian Murray, who at left-back struggled to contain Humphrey on Well’s right, surrendered possession to Lasley, who passed to Nicky Law on the right edge of the box, and he cut back for Higdon to strike a crisp, low effort from the 18-yard line into the right-hand corner of the net.
Hibs did not unduly worry Motherwell prior to half time but emerged rejuvenated from the break. Scott and Griffiths – twice – each had their head in hands after failing to score within the quarter of an hour that followed half time.
Scott benefited from the break of the ball as space opened up before him 30 yards from goal, and he strode into the penalty area only to see an athletic Randolph display superlative reactions to equal his shot at goal. Griffiths, firstly with a dipping shot towards the bottom left-hand corner and then with a close-range effort, found the Irish custodian in similarly unbeatable form.
Randolph was finally beaten on 66 minutes, but O’Connor slipped at a vital moment and the chance passed. The opportunity came after Steve Jennings’ loose back pass allowed Griffiths in on goal, and although the diminutive striker was denied in the ensuing one-on-one with Randolph, the ball broke to O’Connor, but the No. 9 appeared to lose his footing – whether or not that was due to a shove by an opponent was unclear – as he bore down on goal with three defenders on the line. The former Scotland international succeeded in finding the net, but only by punching the ball from his flat-out position, an act that drew a booking from referee Willie Collum.
Calderwood was of the opinion that O’Connor had been bundled over prior to his infringement. “I would have thought that was a foul,” he admitted. “To compound it all, he gets booked as he goes down because he punches it into the net. It feels grossly unfair and thankfully we can say at the end of a winning day it was completely the wrong decision. He’s taken a push in the back, and for some fouls we conceded, it can’t be anything else but a foul.”
A Keith Lasley effort that grazed the crossbar signalled a rare home attack as Hibs laid s
iege to the Motherwell for most of the second half. Scott came close, Victor Palsson closer, but it was talisman O’Connor who snatched another important goal for Hibs.
There was a sense of inevitability in both the arrival of the 87th minute equaliser and the identity of its architects.
O’Connor combined well with Griffiths in midfield before breaking forward, receiving possession back from his strike partner via an incisive pass that split the Motherwell midfield. O’Connor let the ball run until it reached within a yard of the last defender, Tim Clancy, and he prodded past his opponent with a deft touch before advancing into the box and planting the ball to the right of Randolph and into the net. The Hibs fans housed high in the stand behind the goal went wild and lapped up O’Connor’s outpouring of raw delight as he celebrated before them.
Calderwood felt O’Connor sixth strike of the season justified Hibs’ efforts in the match. “Garry’s first goal came because he was in the right position, and the second one . . . how aggrieved would we have felt if we hadn’t scored in that second half,” he said, before adding with a smile, “because we created one or two chances.”
As much as Randolph impressed in the Motherwell goal, Brown posted a solid showing in his rare outing as Hibs ‘keeper and he preserved the Easter Road’s presence in the cup with an agile save high to his right from Steve Jennings as extra time bore on, the English midfielder having struck a rasping effort from 20 yards out.
Brown again single-handedly saved Hibs moments later, smothering Jamie Murphy’s one-on-one effort after Jennings played in the young Scot.
Only a last-ditch sliding tackle by Paul Hanlon saved the blushes of team mate Murray just before the break in extra time. Well substitute Omar Daley turned Murray with ease on the edge of the box, but Paul Hanlon sped to the rescue just as the Jamaican winger pulled the trigger.
Bob McHugh’s headed effort in the second period of extra time found the net but was ruled out for offside, and the Hibs goalkeeper continued his sterling show with a save to his right as Law bore down on goal.
By virtue of his string of brilliant saves, Brown was a key initiator of the series of penalty kicks that followed – and the Hibs keeper’s heroics also ended the shoot-out.
Hibs went first in the shoot-out and O’Connor, Palsson, Junior Agogo, and Griffiths all netted, and Brown’s save from Murphy was equalled by Randolph’s denial of Callum Booth. O’Hanlon and Wotherspoon kept Hibs’ noses in front, and Richie Towell scored what proved to be the winner before Brown dived low to his right to block Law’s effort.
“As the second half was going on, we looked as if we had a danger and were maybe exposed a wee bit,” reflected Calderwood after the match. “We showed terrific guts to come back in that situation. We lost the game for 20-25 minutes after we got the lead but played okay.
“That’s the thing we’ve got to correct: to not be scared of losing and not to be a team that, when they throw everything at it, can play free. If the consequence is you lose the goal because you’re going for it, that’s not acceptable. We’ve got to be a team that can play like that at 0-0, 1-0 up and hold onto leads.”