It was, as you can imagine, a scene of utter devastation. Players sitting around the home dressing-room at Easter Road shell-shocked, their faces reflecting the disbelief that each and everyone of them felt, struggling to comprehend the defeat they’d suffered while, outside, angry fans were baying for the head of manager Pat Fenlon
Being knocked out of the League Cup was hard enough to bear, the fact it was arch-rivals Hearts who had beaten them made it even tougher. But what was even more difficult for Hibs star Tom Taiwo and his team-mates to get their heads round was just how they’d allowed Gary Locke’s players the chance to inflict that pain when they should have had the Jambos blown away within the opening 30 minutes of their quarter-final clash.
In a stunning display, Taiwo claimed today, Fenlon’s side could easily have found themselves four up and safely through to the semi-finals, defender Paul Hanlon thumping a fifth minute header off the post before Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald pulled off a string of fantastic saves, the best of which saw him somehow get a hand to Scott Robertson’s netbound shot to deflect it up and off the crossbar.
Had any one of those early chances been taken, there’s little doubt Hibs would have found themselves on easy street, but, instead, they found themselves caught by a sucker punch, Ryan Stevenson wheeling to crack a superb shot beyond goalkeeper Ben Williams for the only goal of the game, with the Easter Road side going on to continue to dominate without recapturing that early assurance and passing up a late opportunity for an equaliser when MacDonald pulled off yet another breathtaking save to deny Liam Craig.
Today, though, a defiant Taiwo looked forward to Sunday’s Scottish Premiership match against Motherwell at Fir Park and claimed that, if Fenlon’s players can reproduce the scintillating football which was on display on a regular basis, then many more games will be won than lost between now and next May.
The former Leeds United, Chelsea and Carlisle United midfielder said: “To my mind that was the best performance from Hibs in a derby since I have been here, having the ball on the deck, the passing, the movement and creating chances, but, in cup football, the result is paramount so the boys were devastated.
“We definitely felt we deserved to be through to the semi-final and but for the post, the bar and some inspired goalkeeping I think we would have been there.
“The manager and Jimmy Nicholl [Fenlon’s assistant] in all fairness to them tried to take the positives from the performance, the way we carried on going the way we did, refusing to resort to long-ball tactics and tried to play the ball on the deck throughout the game. But it does not mean anything when you are out of a cup and you’ve lost to Hearts.”
Taiwo admitted Stevenson’s 34th minute strike proved to be a game-changer, giving Hearts something to hold onto which they did, getting everyone bar Stevenson behind the ball when not in possession and taking every opportunity to take a few seconds off the clock at every free-kick and throw-in.
He said: “I think we all believed in that opening spell that if we scored we’d go on and win. We played extremely well until the goal and then it was always going to be difficult to continue in the same vein having been hit by a sucker punch like that. Although we didn’t quite play in the same manner after that, I still thought we dominated and controlled the game.
“But it’s difficult when you are playing against a side with ten behind the ball. Even so, we created a great chance but sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and it just wasn’t going to be our night although it was hard to see the Hearts boys being cheered off by their fans when it could so easily have been us.”
The challenge now, according to Taiwo, was to hit the standards shown in that opening phase against Hearts and in the recent draw with Celtic on a weekly basis, Fenlon having accused his players of having failed to do so as they slumped to defeat against Aberdeen only a few days prior to the cup tie.
He said: “The manager and Jimmy both emphasised how well we had played and really questioned why we could not be like that against Aberdeen. They’ve thrown the gauntlet down, telling us that if we want to stay in the team then we have to be producing performances like that every week.
“I’d been out of the side for the previous two games, I came back in againt Hearts and now it’s all about trying to be in that team for every match and trying to push us up the table.
“We know that if we can play as we can, and we do feel we have improved, that when we are on our game we we’ll give anyone a good match. We know if we can do that in most matches then we will win more than we lose. The manager and Jimmy have really put the pressure on, telling us that if we can play like that against Celtic and Hearts then we should be doing it in the games in between.
“And if we do that every week we will be pushing in to the top echelons of this league.”