A goal down, the minutes ticking away and just one last throw of the dice remaining. Little wonder then that Hibs boss Terry Butcher caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised as he made his third and final substitution – throwing on another centre half rather than a striker.
However, Butcher’s decision was vindicated as James Collins snatched an equaliser deep into stoppage time to rescue what had appeared an unlikely point against Partick Thistle, the hitman collecting Paul Hanlon’s knockdown to finally lash the ball beyond Jags goalkeeper Scott Fox.
Today Michael Nelson, who was that third substitution, admitted to being a little taken aback by Butcher’s move, the rationale behind it being to allow Jordon Forster to switch from central defence to the right flank and push higher up the pitch as Hibs threw everything at Thistle in their desperate search for an equaliser.
Nelson said: “Usually when you are chasing a goal, you think that as a defender you are not gong to get on, that’s more likely when you are defending a lead. But it let us send Jordon a bit higher up the pitch, to have him almost playing like a winger.
“The idea was to keep getting the ball into their box, although it seemed every time it dropped it fell to one of their players to clear it.
“But we knew that if we stuck with what the gaffer and Maurice Malpas told us, that if you put that many balls into the box, then sooner or later something is going to drop for you. It took until the 92nd or 93rd minute, but it shows if you stick to your guns you will reap your rewards.
“We knew there was going to be added-on time because of the substitutions and for when they scored, but it would have been nice to have got the goal a bit earlier to let us have a real good push for a winner. At least we managed to salvage a point.
“Up until that stage it looked as if it was going to be a frustrating one for us. Their goalkeeper had pulled off some great saves, right down in the corner from Ryan McGivern and another from James, but the gaffer and Maurice are instilling in us to never give up, to keep getting the ball into their box and if you do that you will get shots away and goals will come.”
Collins’ strike, only his third in a green-and-white jersey, ended a personal drought stretching back more than two months, but like Butcher, 33-year-old Nelson was delighted to see the striker finally find the net again.
He said: “With Paul Heffernan getting injured early in the St Mirren game, James has worked really hard for the team. He’s really grafted, he and Danny Handling have played well together, although it didn’t seem to work as well on Saturday as in previous games.”
“It was a great header down from Paul Hanlon and James had the awareness not to just slash at it but to take a touch and apply a great finish. I was delighted for him to get the goal he’s deserved.”
The earlier goal Hibs had craved might have come 12 minutes from time when Forster’s header back across goal from Liam Craig’s corner looked certain to be turned in by substitute Jason Cummings, but from only two yards out the 18-year-old, who has scored 27 goals so far this season for the club’s Under-20 and East of Scotland sides, took a fresh-air shot. Nevertheless, having played alongside the youngster as he scored a hat-trick, including a spectacular overhead kick, against Hamilton, Nelson has no doubts Cummings will soon be among the goals for the first team.
He said: “I was warming up alongside the goal at that moment. It was a great header from Jordon, but Jason’s timing was slightly out as he’d just come on and that would have been his first touch. He could have had all the headlines, but he’s done brilliantly for the Under-20s. He got that hat-trick against Hamilton and then another the next week against Dunfermline, but he’s had a taste of the Scottish Premiership and his time will come.
“If he keeps working as hard as he is in the Under-20s and in training, then I’m sure there will be plenty more chances for him.”
Further chances are what Nelson himself is looking for, those few minutes against Partick his first since September when he had his left cheekbone smashed in an aerial clash with Celtic striker Amido Balde. The injury required an operation and resulted in him return to action wearing a protective face mask.
He said: “I’d been on the bench up in Dingwall for the Scottish Cup match against Ross County, but didn’t get on so it was good to get on the pitch, make a contribution to a hard-fought draw and to feel back in the picture.”