Neil LENNON reckons Hibs got lucky. But, while the Celtic manager’s assessment was probably not far off the mark, no-one at Easter Road will be taking much notice.
Rather than dwell on that aspect of the match, Pat Fenlon and his players can point to the way in which they came from behind not once, but twice, to earn their point, one which helps maintain what is becoming a decent start to the season.
The draw at Celtic Park won’t, of course, entirely wipe out the memory of that embarrassing defeat by Queen of the South a few days earlier but it will help ease the pain a little, Hibs having put together a run of four matches unbeaten in the SPL.
Given the trauma of the opening day at Tannadice, Fenlon’s side have displayed, Palmerston Park apart, a new-found determination, a willingness to dig in and fight when necessary but also a fair level of skill when the occasion presents itself.
Both facets were on show at Celtic Park, Hibs left hanging on during a first half in which their hosts dominated, taking an early lead through Mikael Lustig but ending with a sublime goal from Paul Cairney, the midfielder skipping past three challenges and “nutmegging” Adam Matthews in the process before lifting his head to slot a low shot across goalkeeper Fraser Forster and into the far corner of the net. An unlikely outcome for many, the first points dropped by Celtic at home since Hibs travelled to the east end of Glasgow last October and departed having recorded a no-scoring draw.
This was only the second point Hibs have managed to wrest from the Hoops in eight matches since Danny Galbraith’s winner in January 2010, so the celebrations which followed the final blast of referee Iain Brines’ whistle were perfectly understandable.
It was a measure of “payback” to the supporters who had followed their side once again despite that huge disappointment but one which now has to be followed up with both performance and result when Kilmarnock and then Inverness Caley visit Easter Road after the international break. Fenlon will no doubt be making that exact same point when preparations for the first of those games get underway but, for the moment, he and his players can enjoy the moment from a far higher perch in the SPL table than many might have imagined before hostilities got underway at the beginning of last month.
Although still very much a work in progress, Fenlon having shaken up his squad again on transfer deadline day as Sean O’Hanlon and David Stephens departed on a permanent basis and Callum Booth went on loan to Livingston while Ryan McGivern arrived from Manchester City, although the paperwork wasn’t completed in time to allow him to play at Celtic Park, slowly but surely the mark the Irishman has made is becoming apparent.
Agreeing that last season there would have been little chance of Hibs coming back once far less twice, he said: “We have different types of character in the dressing-room, a different type of animal altogether.
“They want to scrap and work hard for each other.”
Fenlon’s players certainly had to do that over the course of the first 45 minutes, Lustig arriving unmarked to sidefoot Paddy McCourt’s corner beyond goalkeeper Ben Williams after only ten minutes, usually the signal for a flurry of goals which puts visitors to Celtic Park out of the game before it’s hardly underway. On another day, Celtic may well have done so, Garry Hooper crashing a shot off the bar and a header off William’s left-hand post while the goalkeeper pulled off an acrobatic save from Victor Wanyama before youngster Tony Watt clipped a shot wide after being left with only the Hibs No. 1 to beat.
The visitors were rarely seen as an attacking force during that period but, as Fenlon pointed out afterwards, as long as they remained just one goal behind they were very much in the game.
He said: “The players knew at half-time they had got away with it a little, that we’d ridden our luck with a couple of the chances Celtic had. But when it is 1-0 you always have a good chance, particularly here where if you get back into the game it gets a bit edgy for Celtic.”
That said, Hibs must have felt it wasn’t going to be their day when Eoin Doyle stretched to get on the end of Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick only to see the ball come off the post Hooper had struck earlier but then they got the break any team needs at this particular venue.
David Wotherspoon’s ball over the top looked harmless enough but Forster and Lustig looked at each other as it dropped between them, neither taking responsibility leaving Tim Clancy to toe-poke it beyond the goalkeeper and then walk it into the empty net.
Hibs were behind again, though, when Williams couldn’t hold Filip Twardzik’s low free-kick, Lustig getting to the rebound while Hibs skipper James McPake and Paul Hanlond both threw themselves at the loose ball which ended up in the net. Lustig claimed it but McPake was credited with getting the last touch.
A cruel blow but Fenlon refused to point the finger of blame. He said: “It was a mistake but, in all fairness to Ben, he has been different class for us since he came in so we cannot be too critical.”
Not so long ago, Hibs would simply have crumpled at such a setback but then came Cairney’s moment of magic, like Clancy claiming his first goal for his new club. A few minutes earlier McCourt had passed up the chance to put the game beyond Hibs, dancing through the visiting defence only to prod the ball wide while Twardzik similarly wasted a great opportunity as the clock ticked down, blasting high over after Williams could only push Kris Commons’ free-kick in his direction. Lennon moaned: “I think the result flatters Hibs, they can count themselves pretty lucky to get away with a point. We missed simple chance after simple chance. We should have been out of sight by half-time. On chances alone we could have won two games. I’m not angry, but disappointed.”
In the great scheme of things this was a result which will probably do little to prevent Celtic strolling, as most expect, to the title, but for Hibs it was just what they needed, one which restored a little pride following the debacle in Dumfries and one which should allow Fenlon’s players to look forward to the upcoming fixtures with a measure of confidence – if they produce the same level of desire and application.