The luck of the Irish deserted new Hibs boss Pat Fenlon as he saw his first match in charge of the Easter Road match abandoned at half-time with his side leading through a Garry O’Connor strike.
A small electrical fire within a floodlight in Fir Park’s South Stand had fire engines racing to the Lanarkshire ground and while a short delay was anticipated, the police match commander ordered the game be called off on the grounds of safety.
Chief inspector Brian Connel said: “Shortly before half-time smoke was seen on the CCTV system coming from the south-east corner or the South Stand. There was smoke and the smell of burning and I had no option but to call out fire and rescue at that point.”
While referee Willie Collum extended the interval in the hope that the problem could be rectified, Connel took the decision to call off the match when firefighters were unable to guarantee the fire wouldn’t flare up again.
Both Fenlon and his Fir Park counterpart Stuart McCall agreed it was the right decision, the Motherwell manager admitting the incident had brought memories of the Valley Parade disaster of 1985 in which 56 fans lost their lives, when he played for Bradford City, flooding back. The two managers had been so engrossed in the game they hadn’t noticed the arrival of the fire engines, but McCall said: “In a situation like that, one million per cent, safety has to come first. I was involved in the Bradford fire and when they started talking about wires burning and going into to depth about what could happen if they restarted it [the floodlight].
“The referee was willing to give us 30 minutes before making a decision, but the police and fire people made that decision for him. It was out of his hands.”
And so, the second night of Friday football was brought to an abrupt halt, leaving Fenlon and everyone else to wonder just how his side might have fared had the encounter gone the full 90 minutes.
There was certainly an edge to Hibs which had been absent in recent weeks, the Edinburgh side well worth their lead at the point the match was abandoned – although third-placed Motherwell were showing signs of life prior to what turned out to be a premature final whistle.
Fenlon promised subtle changes rather than radical surgery having watched Hibs capitulate against St Johnstone, top scorer Garry O’Connor making a welcome return having shaken off the throat infection which had prevented him playing at McDiarmid Park, while Michael Hart’s experience was reintroduced in a bid to tighten up a defence which the new boss had already identified as having been guilty of losing too many avoidable goals.
Fenlon, of course, had enjoyed precious little time with his squad, leaving last weekend’s proceedings to assistant manager Billy Brown, but the few days he had spent at the club’s East Mains training centre – “wet and cold” his reply when asked how they had gone – would, at least, have prepared him for a blustery and rain-soaked Fir Park.
O’Connor, though, would have warmed his new boss somewhat with his 11th goal of the season, a typically opportunistic finish after Leigh Griffiths had gathered Ivan Sproule’s cross and held off both Motherwell skipper Stephen Griffiths and Shaun Hutchison as he turned, only to see his shot crash off the left-hand post. O’Connor was on to the rebound in an instant, thumping the loose ball right-footed into the roof of the net from 12 yards out.
As happy as he would have been with his start in Scottish football, Irishman Fenlon would no doubt have had his fingers crossed that he wasn’t about to witness another of those “carbon copy” performances he had viewed time and again as he acquainted himself with his new charges via a library of DVDs of previous matches.
The early signs, though, were promising, Hibs appearing to have a greater sense of determination and purpose about them, exactly the sort of desire the healthy turnout of fans who had travelled from Edinburgh would have been hoping the presence of Fenlon on the touchline would have prompted. A Michael Higdon header over was all the Lanarkshire had to show for their efforts before Griffiths was vehemently claiming for a penalty, his spectacular overhead kick hammering off Stevie Hammell. But referee Willie Collum was spot-on in ruling the Motherwell defender was far too close to have avoided contact.
Hibs were certainly committed in the tackle, a series of challenges angering the home fans before Griffiths found Higdon in his face after he’d clashed with the home side’s striker, the resultant free-kick offering Hutchison the chance to power in a shot which Graham Stack held well given the conditions.
And Stack was again equal to the task three minutes later when Nicky Law drilled in a low shot, the goalkeeper throwing himself full-length to push the ball round the post.
As half-time approached Motherwell forced a succession of corners but threatened from only one, Higdon’s downward header being booted clear.
At that point the sight of two fire engines racing to the ground, although the players would have been totally oblivious to their arrival, seemed only a matter of passing consternation, the initial indication being that the game would only be subject to a five minute delay,
But as the time passed it became clear the problem was more serious that thought, half-time stretching from 15 to 25 minutes before fans were informed the game was off and that they should queue for tickets to give them admission to the replayed game – whenever that might be. And for Fenlon and his players as they headed back along the M8 it was a question of what might have been, the over-riding thought no doubt being just what three points – although there was no guarantee, of course, they’d have won – would have done not only in terms of their plight at the foot of the SPL but for the morale of both them and their supporters.
Motherwell (4-4-2): Randolph; Hateley, Hutchison, Craigan, Hammell; Humphrey, Jennings, Hughes, Law; Higdon, Murphy. Substitutes: Bradley, McHugh, Daley, Forbes, Page, Clancy, Carswell.
Hibs (4-4-2): Stack; Hart, O’Hanlon, Stephens, Hanlon; Wotherspoon, Osbourne, Stevenson, Sproule; O’Connor, Griffiths. Substitutes: Brown, Galbraith, Scott, Palsson, Sodje, Towell, Caldwell.