“Two nil and you mucked it up,” mocked the small band of Motherwell fans as they exited Easter Road, delighting in their side’s stunning comeback from two goals down. Okay, the language actually used was a bit more graphic, but as a family-orientated newspaper we’ll spare your sensitivities.
Either way the message was clear and wasn’t lost on Hibs boss Pat Fenlon or his players, they had no-one to blame but themselves for somehow snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, a win which would have catapulted them back into second place in the SPL table.
Other then seeing Motherwell and Inverness Caley edge that little bit further away from them this disappointment, ultimately, didn’t do too much harm taking into account results elsewhere on the day, Hibs remaining fourth and still within touching distance of the clubs immediately ahead of them.
However, Hibs have now managed to gather just three points out of a possible 15 from their last five matches, the fact that there seems to be so little between the clubs, just eight points separating second-placed Motherwell from Hearts in ninth, a major reason they still find themselves in the top six as some begin to question whether their early season burst has begun to run out of steam.
Fenlon and his players would most certainly argue otherwise, pointing to their away win over St Johnstone, knocking holders Hearts out of the Scottish Cup and a performance against Aberdeen which, on another day, would undoubtedly have brought victory.
But with the League so compact match-winning situations such as Hibs had engineered for themselves have to be taken, as Eoin Doyle, who’s goals either side of half-time had put his side, which had gone into this match boasting the best home record in the League, in such a comfortable position, agreed.
He said: “When it is so tight you have to take these opportunities, especially at home. We haven’t been the best on the road but our home performances have, generally, been good. Even when we lost to Aberdeen we deserved to win the game.”
With Motherwell, as boss Stuart McCall admitted, apparently suffering something of a hangover after being knocked out of the Cup in a midweek replay by the Dons, Hibs made all the early running, Doyle guiding a third minute shot inches wide of target before skipper James McPake, returning to action after a six match absence caused by a back problem, headed a Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick over when he’d have expected to hit the target.
Doyle claimed his sixth goal of the season, timing his run to meet David Wotherspoon’s inviting cross to perfection as he nodded beyond Darren Randolph, and then making it seven as he raced onto Paul Cairney’s searching ball over the top to beat the Fir Park goalkeeper for a second time.
But with those three points beckoning, Hibs went into their shell, content to try to defend that lead rather than seek a third goal which would have put the game beyond their visitors. Chris Humphrey, who had been kept on a tight leash throughout the opening period, was suddenly granted the freedom and space he needed, threading a low ball across the six-yard box for Jamie Murphy, who had been moved into a more telling central role up-front, to throw the Steelmen a lifeline.
Hibs boss Fenlon then threw on Gary Deegan, like McPake returning from a lengthy injury, in his case a broken jaw, for Griffiths, moving to a 4-1-4-1 formation in, he later explained, a bid to ensure his side retained possession much better than they had been. McCall’s response, though, was immediate and, ultimately, effective, pushing on a forward in Bob McHugh in place of central defender Adam Cummins, his reasoning being that he was comfortable with Hibs having only one striker to leave Shaun Hutchinson to cope with any one-on-one situation.
A few minutes later Fenlon replaced Doyle – who insisted that despite his two goals he didn’t feel he’d been playing particularly well – with teenager Ross Caldwell, the youngster barely on the pitch before Murphy claimed his second of the game, one which, again, was totally avoidable from Hibs’ point-of-view but simplicity itself.
Michael Higdon peeled away beyond the back post to head Tom Hateley’s corner back into the danger area, finding the unmarked Murphy to head home. Ten minutes remained but Motherwell weren’t finished, as McCall observed.
Revealing he’d had a “few choice words for his players at half-time, he said: “Even at 2-0 I didn’t think the game was over. Then at 2-2 we wanted to get the ball back and go for the victory. The spirit and desire was there to go and win the game and that was pleasing.
“There’s no better feeling to turn it around from 2-0.”
While Doyle admitted he and his team-mates should never have found themselves in the position of trying to hold on for a point, worse was to come. Alan Maybury came up with a fantastic goal-line challenge to deny McHugh a goal but the substitute wasn’t to be denied, turning in Henrik Ojamaa’s cross with two minutes remaining, a strike which left Fenlon vigorously defending his substitutions as fans rushed to messageboards to point an accusing finger.
Making it clear he disagreed with the suggestion that was a pivotal moment in the game, he said: “Motherwell were pushing a lot of players forward, we needed to retain the ball a lot better than we did after we scored our second goal. I didn’t think taking Leigh off changed the game. We were well under the cosh well before we took him off and I didn’t think he had done well, to be honest.
“The idea was to try to get an extra man in midfield to try to get the ball a bit more than we had done.”
And asked if, in retrospect, taking off both Griffiths and Doyle was “a mistake”, Fenlon retorted: “I have answered that already.” Fenlon’s explanation for such a dramatic turnaround was his players believing they already had the game won. He said: “We stopped playing when we got the second goal. I do not know why, but scoring the second goal seemed to give the players the thought they could see the game out rather than kicking on to score the third one and finish it off.”
To that extent Doyle agreed with his manager saying: “I think we switched off after the second goal, it looked like a comfortable win. We shouldn’t even have been fighting for a draw far less the three points.”
Compounding a miserable afternoon for Hibs was a red card for McPake. The big defender had picked up a somewhat soft yellow card for a pull at Ojamaa and earned a second when referee Steven McLean adjudged his aeriel challenge on Murphy over-robust as the game moved into added-on time.
On reflection McPake would agree it was somewhat rash, taking place inside the centre circle with no danger threatened, one which was undoubtedly made more through frustration than malice but, nevertheless, the consequence will be a seat in the stand on Sunday at Rugby Park as Hibs begin their hectic Christmas schedule in need of convincing their supporters the events of recent weeks are a mere hiccup.