IT MAY not quite have been the result everyone at Easter Road was hoping and praying for, but today Danny Handling insisted the fightback which earned Hibs their first point of the season can be used as a launchpad to fire Pat Fenlon’s side up the SPFL table.
Four morale-sapping defeats have heaped the pressure on the Hibs boss and his players, the opprobrium directed towards them reaching a crescendo in the wake of a derby day defeat by financially-stricken Hearts as, if the headlines were to be believed, the Capital club were in crisis only two games into their domestic season.
The 9-0 Europa League mauling by Malmo will, it seems, hang over the club for months to come, so little wonder that the Hibs support feared the worst when they saw their heroes fall behind yet again, Dundee United midfielder Stuart Armstrong giving the Tannadice side a deserved lead as Fenlon’s players turned in a first-half performance which many rated as even worse than that ill-fated home leg against the Swedes.
So the sense of relief which coursed round the ground, players and fans enveloped in ecstasy as Scott Robertson cracked home a stunning equaliser with just nine minutes remaining, came as no surprise – Hibs having survived further scares, not least when United’s Ryan Dow sprinted forward, only to be denied a second and decisive goal for the Tayside club by goalkeeper Ben Williams.
Luck, though, is a commodity Hibs would claim had deserted them up until that moment, Robertson making the most of Williams’ outstanding save to claim the club’s first goal of the season against his old team.
But Handling also claimed that in that instance he and his team-mates displayed a never-say-die attitude which, with at least a modicum of confidence restored, will bring better days.
The 19-year-old said: “Ben kept us in the game. His save proved to be massive. Had it gone 2-0 at that stage it could well have been game over, but I’m sure a few folk would have been thinking that when they scored we were heading for another defeat. It would have been quite easy for heads to go down, but the one thing the boys do is fight right to the last minute.”
As much a relief as Robertson’s goal provided, there was no-one within Fenlon’s squad happy in the slightest at that first half performance, not least the manager who, along with his assistant Jimmy Nicholl, left the players in no doubt as to the depth of their anger at half-time.
Handling said: “The gaffer wasn’t happy and rightly so. We simply weren’t good enough in the first half and we knew it was nowhere near acceptable. The gaffer and Jimmy gave us a right good talking to and thankfully we produced a much better level of performance in the second half.”
Like Fenlon, Handling was bemused as to how Hibs produced such an insipid display following defeat at Tynecastle, one which the manager felt would have left his players hell-bent on rectifying at United’s expense. The youngster said: “I wouldn’t say there was a nervousness or lack of confidence. We’d been beaten in the derby, which is a big one to take. No-one likes being beaten by Hearts and it should have been motivation enough to come out and prove everyone wrong and the fact it took us to half-time and words from the manager to get us going is the disappointing thing.
“But it was a great feeling to see Scott’s shot go in. He did really well. His first effort was blocked, but he followed it up and managed to get it through a lot of bodies and into the bottom corner of the net. It was a massive confidence boost and hopefully it can kick-start our season.”
Fenlon and his Tannadice counterpart Jackie McNamara both identified the clash midway through the second half between Hibs midfielder Kevin Thomson and United defender Gavin Gunning which led to both players being sent off as the turning point in the game, the visitors forced to reshuffle their back four while, with the Easter Road crowd behind them, the Edinburgh side began to dominate.
Handling agreed, saying: “I thought the red cards were a bit harsh, but it’s the referee’s decision and you just have to get on with it. However, I felt after that we started to play, the game seemed to open up a bit, we got more of the ball and created more chances.”
Both striker James Collins and substitute Ryan McGivern sent curling efforts just wide following Robertson’s goal, while Handling himself admitted he thought he was destined for a glory goal when Williams’ superb throw-out sent him chasing into the United half but with Andrew Robertson trailing in his wake he was unable to get past last defender Sean Dillon and the chance was gone.
However, Handling revealed he was out on his feet by that stage. He said: “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked to come off in a game. I was absolutely done, as was Scott, but he went off and I was left on and had to do as best I could. When Ben threw that ball out I don’t know how I managed to get to it because my legs had gone.
“When I beat the first player I thought ‘this could be it,’ but unfortunately the ball hit the back leg of the second guy and away.
“It would have been great to get all three points and while it was a good point it still wasn’t quite good enough.”
Handling knows Hibs will continue to live life under the microscope, with their critics all too eager to pounce on them again, but, he insisted, like any of his team-mates, he can take the heat, adamant that his tender years shouldn’t shield him from the flak.
He said: “I think if you look behind the headlines of the first two games against Motherwell and Hearts, we could quite easily have won both of them. In each we lost by a single goal when we might have been ahead ourselves but the fact is we lost and some of the stuff that’s been written about us hasn’t been great to read, although we haven’t let that get to us.
“When things aren’t going well, the pressure is on. You just have to get on with it and not complain and make excuses. I can’t do that just because I am a young lad. I am part of the team, not just a wee boy. I’m playing for the jersey like everyone else, so I’m no different to them.
“We are all trying to do our best and it’s up to us to show the spirit we did in the second half against United.”