Hibs get in the faces of Hoops

Celtic's Scott Brown and Hibs Rowan Vine. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Celtic's Scott Brown and Hibs Rowan Vine. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Neil Lennon was seething, Pat Fenlon unrepentant and in no mood for any apologies in the face of stinging criticism from the Celtic boss after Hibs had come within 14 minutes of inflicting a first defeat of the season on the Scottish Premiership leaders.

Lennon was left raging at what he saw as “absolutely shocking, reckless,” and in one instance “rugby-esque” challenges from Fenlon’s players throughout the 90 minutes of a pulsating match.

Fenlon’s reaction was simply to shrug his shoulders and accept Lennon’s entitlement to voice his opinions but you couldn’t help but feel he was quietly pleased with the response his team’s performance had provoked, that they’d certainly got under his counterpart’s skin with their determination to stand toe-to-toe with their opponents and refuse to simply buckle when under pressure.

“Good,” was Fenlon’s reply when told of Lennon’s outburst, “It means the message is getting across to my players that we want to go and compete and be in people’s faces.”

To the neutral Lennon’s assessment of what had gone before would appear as over-the-top as some of the tackles he claimed to be, coming as they did from someone who in his own playing days was no stranger to snapping and snarling at opponents, never one to shirk a challenge.

And if a few were, indeed, borderline as Lennon claimed, then referee Calum Murray ruled they were within the letter of the law, the official reaching only twice for the yellow card, for Hibs’ Liam Craig and Ryan McGivern, when he felt the boundary had been crossed. Otherwise Murray was prepared to let play rage on, his approach adding to the entertainment on show by allowing play to flow rather than disrupting it with continual blasts of his whistle.

That said, Lennon and his players did have one genuine grievance although it was more at Murray’s assistant Tom Murphy who failed to spot that Hibs striker Paul Heffernan was at least a yard offside when Kevin Thomson, who had, arguably, his best game for the Capital club since his return, slid in to dispossess Celtic skipper Scott Brown and prod the ball forward.

Heffernan himself admitted he felt he was a couple of yards off but obeyed the first rule of football, play to the whistle, as he managed to squeeze the ball under Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster, leading Lennon to comment: “When it’s as blatant as that you have to ask why they missed it.”

Hibs star Heffernan’s view was simple. “I had a bit of luck. The ball broke to me quickly, there were no defenders near me and I felt I was offside. I had a quick look at the linesman, he didn’t stick the flag up so I kept playing.”

Kris Commons should have levelled five minutes later as he evaded Hibs’ offside trap to leave himself with only goalkeeper Ben Williams to beat only to loft the ball over the top. For all Celtic’s pressure Williams had only one save of note to make in the first half, in the right place to block Georgios Samaras’ effort, but he did have McGivern to thank two minutes before the interval when he inexplicably raced out to his left in a race for the ball with James Forrest which he was never going to win. As a result Williams found himself stranded as the winger, who had replaced the injured Commons, found Teemu Pukki only a few yards out. The Finn, though, wanted a second touch, the split-second delay allowing McGivern to launch himself into the path of his shot although both Michael Nelson and Paul Hanlon behind him were doing exactly the same.

It was indicative of the approach Hibs had taken, pressing Celtic whenever they were in possession although that task became harder by the minute in the second 45 minutes as Lennon’s side began to turn the screw. Williams, however, made up for that moment of aberration with a string of stunning saves, getting his fingertips to Beram Kayal’s low shot - Nelson sliding in to divert the rebound away from Samaras - and then getting down low to push Anthony Stokes effort from a tight angle round the post.

A powerful drive from Pukki was taken at the second attempt but just when it looked as if Hibs might survive, Forrest carved his way into the penalty box before delivering a wonderful shot with the outside of his right boot which found the far corner of Williams’ net. At that point Hibs were down to ten men, McGivern desperately trying to catch Murray’s eye for permission to return to the field having received treatment for a knee injury, the home side deprived of numbers to “double up” as they had been doing to try to nullify the threat from the Scotland star.

Fenlon said: “Forrest had given us a few problems and we were trying to get the message across to try to get him down the line and defend crosses rather than let him come in inside. But in fairness to him it was a fantastic finish.”

Forrest almost claimed a winner three minutes from time, meeting Charlie Mulgrew’s cross first-time and looked certain to score only for Williams to get down to thrust out a strong right hand and ensure a well deserved point for his team.

One rather than three was, however, a touch disappointing for Fenlon. He said: “When you play Celtic and you pick up a point you are maybe happy. But when you are leading for so long you are disappointed not to have picked up three.

“It was disappointing to lose the goal when we were down to ten men but I could not have asked any more of the players. They worked really hard and made sure we got something from the game.

“I was delighted with my players, they made sure Celtic knew they had been in a game.”

And it was that which seemed to have irked Lennon, the loss of Commons with a hamstring injury which rules him out of tomorrow night’s Champions League match with Ajax along with the suspended Brown no doubt offering some measure of explanation for his attack on Hibs, one which Heffernan labelled “an over-reaction.”

The victim of a couple of robust challenges in quick succesion from Efe Ambrose which he felt were illegal but went unpunished, Heffernan said: “It goes both ways. I don’t think we were over-zealous or anything like that.

“Conditions were difficult, it was a bit slippy. There were a few tackles flying in but you would expect that. They are a top side and you are not going to stand off them and let them pop the ball around you. But I don’t think there was anything nasty, it was all pretty much within the rules of the game.

“We didn’t want to let them dictate the pace of the game, to let them have 80 per cent or whatever of the ball. We wanted to try to get in their faces a little bit and that’s what we did. We put in a great shift, everyone worked hard. I thought the back four and the goalkeeper were magnificent when we were under pressure but in the end we were disappointed not to win.

“I had a touch of luck for my goal but we were unlucky to be down to ten men when they scored so these things even themselves up.