AS Jimmy Greaves was wont to observe during his on-screen jousts with Ian St John, “It’s a funny old game Saint”.
Battered and bruised from shipping four goals in little more than 20 minutes as they had crashed out of the Scottish Communities League Cup at the hands of Celtic only a few days earlier, Hibs turned up in Glasgow to face Neil Lennon’s side again with the question on many lips simply being “How many this time?”
James Forrest, Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper, the players who had inflicted the damage at Easter Road, had probably spent the previous night dreaming of seeing the ball fly past Graham Stack time and again while the massed ranks of Hoops fans inside that vast arena were simply salivating at the thought.
Ninety minutes later they departed, stunned and shocked not only at their heroes’ failure to claim even a single goal, but the realisation they’d fallen yet further behind arch-rivals Rangers in the race for the SPL title, the chasm between the respective sides of the Old Firm now an astonishing 12 points with Motherwell continuing to separate the pair.
In the wake of that devastating second-half blitz Lennon had contemplated the prospect of facing Hibs again in a matter of days, insisting that while he wasn’t being complacent, his side would be “hard to stop” if they reproduced that display in their own backyard.
But from first whistle to last they never gave the slightest hint that they might do so, starting lethargically and unable to step up through the gears, leaving the field to a chorus of jeers and a remarkable attack on their attitude by Lennon, who accused some of being mere passengers, happy to piggy-back on the efforts of others.
No doubt the shortcomings of Celtic will dominate the post-match debate but no-one should overlook the contribution of Hibs. From Stack out to Leigh Griffiths they didn’t have a failure, each and every one of Colin Calderwood’s players producing a well-organised, highly disciplined performance which fully merited the point they gained.
Having suffered that hammering last Wednesday Calderwood might have been expected to have conducted drastic surgery, but while the Hibs boss did make four changes, he stuck steadfastly to the bold formation he had fielded on that occasion with Junior Agogo operating at the head of a midfield “diamond” just behind Garry O’Connor and Griffiths.
Foolhardy? Bloody-minded? Pig-headed? All charges no doubt made against Calderwood when his intentions became clear. It was, however, a sign of a manager, regardless of the pressure which has been building on him throughout a disappointing start to the season, having the courage of his convictions, the former Scotland defender having insisted it wasn’t the formation, system or tactics deployed which had seen Hibs suffer in their previous game but a failure of his players to carry out the duties designated to them.
He said: “The goals came [last Wednesday] not because we were open. We had everyone in place but we just did not do our jobs well enough and that frustrated me even more so when I watched it again afterwards.”
There were frustrations, etched on the face of Calderwood and Billy Brown, again, particularly during the first half of this match, manager and assistant clearly irked on more than one occasion as they saw final passes over or under-hit or mis-placed by even a few inches, the boss admitting he’d have liked to have seen his players make better use of the ball throughout that period.
What he couldn’t question, though, was their courage in getting on the ball and attempting to take the game to Celtic when they could although Hoops goalkeeper Fraser Forster, other than a string of routine saves and one dash from his area to head a through ball clear, wasn’t over-troubled.
Given the circumstances it might, as Calderwood admitted, have seemed a touch greedy to talk in terms of Hibs going on to win this game but there was no hiding the manager’s delight at the way in which his side had overcome the scars, particularly the mental ones, inflicted on them. He said: “I’m very happy, we got better as the game went on. It’s a good scoreline for us, a good point at a difficult place. Psychologically being able to keep a clean sheet after losing four goals in 20 odd minutes is definitely a good help.”
Hibs’ undoing in the Cup match had been, having taken an early lead, conceding an equaliser within two minutes of the second half getting under way, Forrest’s goal robbing the Edinburgh side of the initiative and imbuing his team-mates with the impetus to basically run riot.
This time round, though, having got to the midway point on level terms, Calderwood’s players ensured their opponents got hardly a whiff of goal and, in fact, carried the game to Celtic in the early minutes of the second period with Danny Galbraith and Griffiths both ensuring Forster’s attention didn’t wander.
The Hibs manager said: “I thought we took the ball off them in good areas, high enough up the pitch that it was not around our box often. We’d told the players they had to manage the game better and they did that.”
No team, of course, can expect to go to Celtic Park or Ibrox without having to survive a scare or two but those moments were limited, Stack making a couple of decent saves in the first half and after the interval, other than a Forrest shot which clipped the top of his crossbar, the Hibs goalkeeper had little to exert him.
The result was an all too rare clean sheet, only Hibs’ third in the SPL this season but one which was fully merited. With O’Connor, Agogo and Griffiths pressing up front Isaiah Osbourne roamed around the middle of the park winning the vast majority of his challenges, ably assisted by Galbraith and Lewis Stevenson who were more than willing to double up to assist Paul Hanlon as he faced Forrest, who had given him a torrid time in the Capital.
Their help was much appreciated by the Scotland Under-21 skipper who said: “Forrest is a top class player and will be for many years to come so I was happy to keep him relatively quiet. Danny can run all day so it was good to have him in front of me. He gets back supporting and gets himself forward which is brilliant.
Sean O’Hanlon and David Stephens provided a rugged, determined barrier right in front of Stack, while David Wotherspoon produced an assured performance at right back, few, if any signs of trepidation given what had gone before evident at all in Calderwood’s side.
Hanlon said: “I think we showed the character we have in the squad to bounce back, to believe in ourselves and to keep going to the end and get that point. The manager had told us to put the Cup game to the back of our minds, that there was nothing we could do about it and to focus on our league form.”