As a game plan it worked almost to perfection, just one momentary lapse in concentration proving to be the undoing of Hibs.
But if there was any thought that Terry Butcher’s side would have been breathing a sigh of relief at escaping Celtic Park having lost by the narrowest of margins to a team which had hammered 19 goals past Ross County, Aberdeen, Hearts and Motherwell in their previous four Scottish Premiership matches, it was quickly dashed by the Easter Road boss.
No, he insisted, his way of thinking was that the Capital club could even have departed Glasgow with a point, highlighting how in the final few minutes of the contest Neil Lennon’s players had been more than content to play the ball into the corners in an effort to preserve the lead Teemu Pukki’s first goal in three months had brought them.
Ben Williams had certainly been the busier of the two goalkeepers throughout, but, as Butcher insisted, on many of the occasions in which he was called into action it was to deal with the long-range efforts Celtic were forced to unleash as they found themselves unable to carve open the visiting defence as many had predicted.
Butcher had promised ahead of the journey along the M8 that his players would be resolute, resilient and organised – and then some – and true to his word they were, frustrating and defying their opponents while with a bit better use of the ball themselves they might just have caused Lennon a touch more consternation,
Having watched Celtic bounce back from previous Champions League disappointments to crush Ross County and Aberdeen and then Hearts and Motherwell, Butcher was aware a similar thrashing was being predicted for his side.
Butcher, though, believed otherwise, revealing: “I never thought it would be like that, I felt we could apply ourselves very well, be hard to beat and resilient, which we were. Our game plan was to sit off them in the first half to frustrate them and the crowd which we did for 28 minutes. But then we gave the ball away, they capitalised and punished us.
“But apart from that they have not cut through us, they have not had one-on-ones and haven’t created any real clear-cut chances. There were long-range shots which Ben Williams dealt with very well and which we followed up very well. There were deflected shots and Ben has made some good reaction saves but they didn’t really hurt us.”
Butcher admitted, however, that Hibs hadn’t hurt Celtic to any great extent, a Lewis Stevenson shot from distance which went wide and a Jordon Forster header over from a corner being all they had to show until Scott Robertson made room for himself and delivered a low drive which Fraser Forster did well to claw away from the bottom corner of his net.
Skipper Liam Craig went even closer, cracking a shot off Forster’s left hand post with the goalkeeper beaten only for the rebound to catch Paul Cairney on his heels, the midfielder unable to take possession before Emilio Izaguirre managed to hack the ball clear.
Butcher said: “There were one or two other skirmishes around their box and at the end I thought we were going to take something from the game, you are just standing there hoping that the ball will just drop for us.”
It was a similar scenario to the Partick Thistle game seven days earlier, Hibs’ persistence winning them a late, late equaliser but this time round there was to be no happy ending in an eerily quiet Celtic Park, the vast stadium obviously far, far short of the official 46,065 attendance, the figure presumably including season ticket holders who hadn’t turned up, a practice used elsewhere to inflate the gate.
The expected backlash from Celtic also failed to put in an appearance but, to a great extent, that was down to the way in which Hibs set about the game, leading Butcher to say: “I was really pleased with the way we played, pleased with their effort and commitment but when you come to places like this you have to keep the ball better and when you get opportunities you have to take them.
“At half-time we said ‘let’s push men forward’, work hard and we can always change it which we did. We ended up with three up and with a diamond which caused Celtic one or two problems. There was a bit of nervousness from them and you had Celtic putting the ball into corners at the end, hanging on for a 1-0 win which says a lot for how far we have come.”
Celtic’s frustration led to Izaguirre being booked for diving under Michael Nelson’s challenge, an incident which provoked a furious reaction from Lennon only for the Hoops boss to afterwards admit referee Bobby Madden’s decision was correct although the whistler missed former Hibs striker Anthony Stokes having a kick at Jordon Forster after the pair had clashed on the touchline.
While Butcher was obviously as happy as he could be in defeat, Lennon was rather less than complimentary about Hibs once again. He said: “It takes two teams to make a game and I think Hibs set their stall out from minute one to get everyone behind the ball and make it difficult for us to break them down.
“We were forced to make all the running and fatigue kicked in second half with tired legs which was understandable after the game on Wednesday, not getting back until 3.30 on Thursday morning and having so little time to recover.
“I am not being critical. We go away from home at times in Europe and have to settle for that way.”
Butcher, having tasted defeat for the first time as Hibs boss, would no doubt take Lennon’s critique of his team’s performance as a backhanded compliment, adamant that only four games into his reign the Easter Road club are moving in the right direction although, as he agreed, a few more goals would help speed up that process.
He said: “The goals will come, we will be more convincing with our crosses, more convincing when the ball does come to us in the box. We are trying to change mindsets, trying to change everything round very quickly. We are getting there, we have definitely made good progress but there is still a long way to go.”