Hibs-Ayr reaction: Neil Lennon slams ‘awful’ first-half show

Jason Cummings provides the finishing touch to a James Keatings cross and salvages a point for Hibs
Jason Cummings provides the finishing touch to a James Keatings cross and salvages a point for Hibs
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Half an eye on Sunday’s Scottish Cup showdown against Capital rivals Hearts? A touch of complacency from the Championship leaders or perhaps just that well known curse of the manger of the month award that Neil Lennon had received only a couple of days earlier? Who knows.

Whatever it was, there was no escaping the fact that just eight days ahead of their trip to Tynecastle to face a resurgent, new-look Hearts side, Lennon’s players picked this one to turn in probably their poorest 45 minutes of the season.

04/02/17 LADBROKES CHAMPIONSHIP 
  HIBERNIAN V AYR UNITED 
  EASTER ROAD STADIUM - EDINBURGH 
  Ayr UTD’s Robbie Crawford (8) scores to make it 0-1

04/02/17 LADBROKES CHAMPIONSHIP HIBERNIAN V AYR UNITED EASTER ROAD STADIUM - EDINBURGH Ayr UTD’s Robbie Crawford (8) scores to make it 0-1

Up against an Ayr United side which hadn’t won in 12 games, Hibs were overwhelming favourites at odds of 1/5 with their opponents offered at 9/1, underlining the supposed gulf in class between the teams.

Ian McCall’s men, however, had shocked the title favourites earlier in the season by becoming the only team to enjoy a league win at Easter Road and they stunned them again, Robbie Crawford allowed all the time and space in the world to waltz his way into the penalty area before delivering a low shot which squirmed under the right hand of goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw after just four minutes.

“Awful, awful, awful, awful,” said Lennon. “We gave the warnings before the game. We backed off and had we backed off any further we’d have been in among the Ayr supporters in the away end. All it does is give them a bit of encouragement to hold on to something.”

And that’s exactly what Ayr did, their gameplan of frustrating Hibs and trying to nick a goal paying off and allowing them to bring everyone bar striker Declan McDaid behind the ball to present Lennon’s players with an all too familiar problem of how to unlock a packed defence.

Again they struggled. Their distribution poor as was the weight of pass, their decision-making and speed of thought, playing at a pedestrian pace which gave Ayr the time they needed to regroup and snuff out any hint of trouble.

The one clear-cut chance they did carve out was scorned, Andrew Shinnie getting on the end of Fraser Fyvie’s cross only to head over with Greg Fleming’s goal gaping. Lennon said:

“Their goal summed up the first half. It was awful and then we looked a little bit disjointed for long periods of the first half.

“It was a very poor performance - I don’t know where that came from. I wasn’t happy. We thoroughly deserved to get back into the game, but we should be winning these games. We changed shape at half-time because it was not working and it was better - there again anything would have been better from what I saw in the first half.”

The fact Hibs did pick up a point came from the head of Jason Cummings, the club’s top striker, like the veteran Grant Holt, stepping from the bench as Lennon sought to retrieve the situation and, in truth, they might have done a bit more, Holt seeing a netbound header nodded off his own line by Ayr’s Brian Gilmour.

“That’s the sixth I’ve had taken off the line this season,” sighed Holt. “But we got a point. We have a team that doesn’t know when it’s beaten and we’re another point towards where we want to be.

“It was frustrating, but I don’t think we were expecting it to be otherwise, to be honest. We know what Ayr did to us last time here and what they tried to do when we were at Somerset Park, to sit in and frustrate.”

Lennon offered his players one excuse, revealing he was annoyed at the state of the Easter Road pitch. He said: “It was poor considering we haven’t played on it for a month and that’s something I’d like to address.”

The Hibs boss admitted this display had given him food for thought ahead of the derby, having earlier warned any player not at the top of his game in this one ran the risk of missing out against Hearts.

He said: “I was fed up talking about the derby because it was not at the top of my agenda and it should not be at the top of the players’ agenda either. It will take care of itself. These games are far more important as far as I am concerned.

“The derby, a cup-tie, they’ll be motivated for that. But I’d far rather they were at it from the start against Ayr but we weren’t.”

Scotland midfielder John McGinn, however, insisted he and his team-mates hadn’t been distracted by the hype which is already building around the Tynecastle clash, saying: “People will say ‘you must have been thinking about next week’.

“But that wasn’t the case. We’ve got one goal this season and that is to get the club back to the top league. This game was more important than next week so we are obviously disappointed. Next week gives us a chance to play well again and get back scoring goals and hopefully get the bragging rights.

“It’s a really good game to look forward to, but at the end of the day, our main aim is to get promoted and this wasn’t good enough. We could have defended their goal a bit better, it’s taken Ross by surprise a bit.

“He was disappointed by it, but he’s been brilliant for us this season. Hopefully that’s only a little blip. We could have defended it better, but we should still have enough to come from behind and go and win the game. It just wasn’t to be.

“I just don’t think we looked ourselves. We still created chances, not as many as we normally do, but at the end of the day it’s a point closer to where we want to be. Obviously we wanted the three points, but we need to move on.”

Having helped end the Scottish Cup hoodoo of 114 years, McGinn admitted he and his team-mates would desperately love to hold on to it, answering the question as to which he would take, another cup win or promotion, by saying: “It will be the same as last year. Both.

“We’ve got one that’s a lot more important than the other. Everything is set for this club to be a Premiership one, but we are down here for a reason. We weren’t good enough last year or the year before to get promoted . . . it’s something that’s been bugging us.

“Everyone here is desperate to get promotion. Last year was amazing with everything that happened, but at the end of the day, we failed. We never got promoted. And I don’t want to be classed as a failure again.”