Neil Lennon was sent off in his first match in charge of Hibs as a first-minute blunder by goalkeeper Otso Virtanen gifted Brondby a narrow win and the upper hand going into the second leg of this Europa League tie.
Virtanen, chalking up his first start for the Easter Road outfit, made a mess of his big chance, spilling a low shot from Martin Albrechsten into the path of Kamil Wilczek, who thrashed it into the roof of the net.
There were only 16 seconds on the clock and most inside the Edinburgh ground feared another night of European humiliation but, to be fair to Lennon’s players, they regrouped and could consider themselves unlucky not to be heading to Copenhagen for next Thursday’s return leg on level terms.
Jason Cummings, hot on the heels of signing a new four-year contract, stung the palms of the Danes’ goalkeeper Frederik Ronnow and was then on hand to slide home Martin Boyle’s low cross. He looked onside, but the offside flag was raised against him, infuriating the home support and Lennon, who took things too far in the eyes of referee Juan Martinez Munuera, leaving the head coach to watch the following 60 minutes from the directors’ box.
At the end, his players slumped to their knees, but winning the applause from their supporters who recognised the efforts they had put in. Hibs, of course, still have a chance of making the third qualifying round but, with that vital away goal packed away, Brondby will feel confident they’ll be taking that place.
Lennon was forced into one change from the side which had inflicted a 4-1 friendly defeat on Motherwell last Sunday, Fraser Fyvie, who had picked up a knock in that game, making way for Dylan McGeouch in central midfield.
The other switch was Virtanen’s selection in goal, while Brondby sprang a surprise, former Celtic striker Teemu Pukki having to settle for a seat on the bench.
But Virtanen was left holding his head in his hands after just 16 seconds after he spilled a low shot from Albrechsten, pushing the ball into the path of Wilczek, who couldn’t believe his luck, the Polish striker firing it into the roof of the net from six yards out.
With Mark Oxley having departed for Southend United, Lennon had insisted Virtanen was due his chance, reasoning that the Finnish Under-21 internationalist hadn’t enjoyed sufficient game time on which to base a judgment of his capabilities.
However, there was no doubt it was a horrific start for the youngster, one which could prompt Lennon, with only former Raith Rovers goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw as an alternative although West Brom’s 19-year-old Alex Palmer is set to arrive on loan, to search for an experienced No.1.
Memories of that 7-0 thrashing by another Scandinavian side, Sweden’s Malmo, in Hibs’ last Euro outing four years ago no doubt chilled the blood of the home support, but for Lennon’s players it was a case of taking a deep breath and try to put that moment out of their minds.
Like Hibs, Brondby’s domestic season has yet to begin – they play their opening match on Sunday – but such a start had clearly given Alexander Zorniger’s players a lift and the Easter Road side had to patiently play their way into the game.
They did so, Lewis Stevenson’s ball into Cummings allowing the striker to crack in a right-footed shot which Ronnow elected to punch clear. It was, though, something to bring the Hibs fans to life, as did a Darren McGregor header from McGeouch’s free-kick which flew inches wide.
A Rodolph Austin volley from Christian Jakobsen’s knock-down which screamed over Virtanen’s bar reminded Hibs of the need to avoid losing a costly second goal, but Lennon’s players thought they had equalised in the 31st minute. John McGinn’s pass, played with the outside of his right boot, sent Martin Boyle scampering into space on the right. He looked up, spotted Cummings and delivered an inch-perfect ball for the 20-year-old to slide past Ronnow, only to find the flag of assistant referee Miguel Martinez raised for offside.
Cummings looked onside and the home support certainly thought so, howling their anger, while Lennon’s temper got the better of him, his protests such that Spanish referee Munuera sent him to the stand.
Munuera may have issued a blizzard of yellow cards in La Liga last season but, as the challenges flew in, he was happy to let play flow as much as possible until Austin’s late sliding challenge on McGinn tested him too far, the Danish midfielder the first in his book.
Having suffered that disastrous start, Hibs had found their feet and were playing with conviction and purpose.
They almost got their reward as half-time approached, Ronnow getting down to push Boyle’s low shot aside before Marvin Bartley delivered a sumptuous cross between the goalkeeper and Albrechsten, the defender clearly worried he might turn it into his own net. The ball, though, spun across the six-yard box to safety.
Hibs would have felt they didn’t deserve to be a goal down as they headed up the tunnel having shaken off that first-minute shock to give Brondby, who finished fourth in the Super Liga last season, plenty to think about.
Pukki made an early second-half appearance, replacing Daniel Stuckler as Brondby sought another away goal which would all but kill the tie and it took a terrific block from Paul Hanlon to prevent them getting it as the game moved into its final 30 minutes.
Patrick da Silva forced his way to the bye-line before cutting the ball back for Wilczek, whose second goal looked certain to arrived until Hanlon threw himself at the ball to block.
Hibs, though, were far from out of it and Lennon’s deputy Garry Parker made a double substitution, bringing on a third striker in James Keatings, while the arrival of Liam Fontaine meant Hanlon moved into that holding midfield role in place of Bartley.
The Capital side were being caught offside too often, Cummings’ frustration clear to see as he took his argument a little too far as he, too, was shown the yellow card.
Munuera was winning few fans among the home support and they were left raging again in the 68th minute when Grant Holt went down under the challenge of Andrew Hjulsager, the Spanish whistler waving away his claims of a trip.
Virtanen redeemed himself somewhat, racing to the edge of his area to thwart Pukki as the game began to stretch and Hibs began to tire a little in this their first competitive match, the Finn alert enough to block Jakobsen’s shot from the rebound.
Things just weren’t falling for Hibs, David Gray spotting Cummings’ run and supplying the pass it cried out for, only for the ball to clip the striker’s heels.
One-nil then it finished to the Danes. Hibs aren’t out of the tie, but they face a tough task in Copenhagen next Thursday.
Hibs (4-1-3-2): Virtanen; Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; Bartley (Fontaine 63); Boyle, McGeouch (Keatings 63), McGinn; Cummings, Holt. Unused subs: Laidlaw, Stanton, Handling, Harris, Crane.
Brondby (4-3-1-2): Ronnow; Larsson, Albrechsten, Rocker, Da Silva; Holst, Norgaard, Austin (Hjulsager 43); Jakobsen (Julesgaard 83); Stuckler (Pukki 51), Wilczek. Unused subs: Toppel, Crone, Borring, Corlu.
Referee: J M Munuera.