Proud Easter Road boss Neil Lennon today insisted Hibs should be heading for Berlin in the Europa League third qualifying round despite being knocked out of the competition on penalties by Brondby.
Lennon was adamant his side were the better of the two teams over the two legs and had it not been for goalkeeper Otso Virtanen’s 16th-second blunder which gifted the Danes a goal in Edinburgh and a disallowed Jason Cummings effort, they’d be preparing to face Hertha Berlin next week.
David Gray’s header midway through the second half in Copenhagen earned Hibs victory on the night and pulled the tie level, but 30 minutes of extra time couldn’t separate the teams, the Capital outfit exiting 5-3 on a penalty shoot out after John McGinn missed his side’s first from the spot.
But Lennon, who was forced to watch from the stand after being sent off at Easter Road, couldn’t hide his pride in his players, saying: “Any luck in this tie went against us. However, I cannot speak highly enough of the team. Outstanding ... to come away from home and to lose by a penalty shoot out is hard to take. But we need to start from here. It was fantastic to take Brondby all the way at such an early stage.
“I feel we were the better team and but for a horrendous goalkeeper error and scoring a perfectly good goal that wasn’t allowed – and clean sheet tonight – we deserved to win and we should be heading to Berlin.”
Lennon made a huge call in dropping Virtanen, handing 24-year-old Ross Laidlaw his debut, a decision he insisted was fully vindicated.
He said: “That was my call. He had a superb game. He dealt with everything very well and was unlucky not to save one or two of the penalties – one of them went in off the post.”
Pointing out he didn’t enjoy too many away wins in Europe as manager of Celtic, Lennon went on: “I thought we had the measure of Brondby after the first game. We knew we would be a week fitter, but it’s maybe that week too early for us, otherwise we would have got over the line.
“On reflection, however, we were the better team over the tie. A mistake in the first leg cost us a result. To come here away from home against a team who are flying – 15 goals in four games – and restrict them to very little is a terrific effort.
Lennon admitted his players were “running on fumes” by the end of the 120 minutes, but said: “This will give them a lot of belief. We showed tremendous character. Paul Hanlon in both games was head and shoulders above, absolutely outstanding.”
The Hibs boss felt for McGinn, saying: “That is by the by. They could easily have missed one or two themselves, it was just bad luck. I don’t think you can talk about ‘villains’ after a night like that and a performance like that. We were absolutely brilliant and did the fans here proud.
“David Gray’s was a great goal and a good finish. I’m standing here disappointed because we have gone out. I’m setting high standards, which they need to get used to, and they are responding.
“But what a year David is having: a goal tonight and a goal in the cup final which will be remembered forever, and had a little boy last week.”
Gray suffered a shoulder injury and had to be replaced. Lennon added: “David landed on his shoulder so hopefully it is not too serious. Maybe a week to ten days.”