On a night when Hibs’ rich European history should have been celebrated along with the life of club legend Lawrie Reilly, the Easter Road fans were, instead, subjected to an evening of abject humiliation.
A bumper crowd of more than 16,000 had gathered, more one felt to pay homage to Reilly, one of the pioneers of football at this level, rather than in any real hope of seeing Pat Fenlon’s side overcome the two-goal deficit from the first leg of this Europa League tie against Swedish outfit Malmo. Yes, the ritual of assuring everyone that it wasn’t beyond the Capital club, that with the backing of their fans and, hopefully, an early goal would put an entirely different complexion on affairs. In truth, few who had witnessed events in the Swedbank Stadion seven days earlier would, hand on heart, have given much for Hibs’ chances.
Apart from the little matter of scoring three themselves, Fenlon’s players were also confronted with the predicament of ensuring their visitors, having notched 11 in their previous five games, didn’t find the net again. Sadly, on both counts Hibs were found wanting, as they were unable to create any chance of note throughout the entire 90 minutes while Rikard Norling’s side helped themselves to plenty at the other end.
The upshot: a 7-0 hammering, the club’s worst individual result in Europe. To add to their humiliation, the 9-0 aggregate defeat was the biggest European deficit ever sustained by a Scottish club. It also represented the most goals conceded over two legs by a Scottish side since Rangers lost 12-4 to Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final of the old European Cup in season 1959-60.
Although Malmo had gone into the tie with the advantage of being halfway through their season and, on the evidence of the first leg clearly the better team, few, if any, would have seen this one coming, least of all Norling, although he and his players had exuded the same confident aura about the outcome of the second leg as they had the first.
Nevertheless, Norling admitted: “It was a lucky day, when we came close to the goal it seemed that the ball wanted to go in for us.”
Luck, though, had little to do with it. As in the first leg, when only a string of superb saves from goalkeeper Ben Williams prevented Malmo ending the tie there and then, Hibs appeared to have no answer to the pace, movement and inventiveness of the Swedes and their ability to carve the Easter Road side apart at will.
If the opening 20 minutes gave Fenlon some comfort, a cagey start in which the two teams appeared to be sizing each other up, his peace of mind was quickly shattered. Firstly, Simon Thern played in Tokelo Rantie who, in typical Malmo fashion, shaped to shoot only to cut the ball back for Magnus Eriksson, scorer of their second goal at home, to slot beyond Williams.
The floodgates then opened, Williams only delaying the inevitable as he spread himself to deny Rantie before, in quick succession, Emil Forsberg, Markus Halsti and Miiko Albornoz left Hibs reeling.
Little wonder then that huge swathes of empty seats in the East Stand – which had been completely sold out as fans gathered to join in a minute’s applause in appreciation of Reilly who had died on Monday morning – greeted the players on their return after the interval, only for many more to appear as Malmo signalled they hadn’t quite finished for the night.
Rantie was on hand to make it five after Williams couldn’t hold captain Jiloan Hamad’s shot before Hamad himself beat Williams at his near post as he caught the goalkeeper napping with a powerfully struck low free-kick. Rantie then left Paul Hanlon sitting on the seat of his pants as he turned the defender to lay the ball into the path of Simon Kroon, who sealed the rout. Seven goals from seven different scorers said it all on a night when all Hibs could muster in reply was a first-half
Jordon Forster header which went wide and a Scott Robertson shot which Malmo goalkeeper Johan Dahlin used as catching practice.
By then, the clutch of SPFL managers who had gathered to get a glimpse of Hibs with barely a week to go before the new season gets underway – including Motherwell boss Stuart McCall, who brings his side to Easter Road a week on Sunday – had long gone. Like the fans who had headed for the exits, they’d seen enough although, no doubt, they’ll deliberate as to whether Hibs are as bad as the scoreline suggests or if Malmo were simply a cut above. The answer will come in the months ahead but, over the next few days, Hibs fans will be fretting over what the new season holds, having once more gathered in their thousands looking for signs of better to come only to be kicked in the teeth yet again. How many will return for the visit of Motherwell is anyone’s guess, but it seems safe to suggest many will take some convincing.
Lack of firepower
Of particular concern will be the apparent lack of firepower following the loss of both Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle, who boasted 39 goals between them last season. Fenlon has known since the turn of the year that Doyle was off while he appears to have clung to the fading hope of the talismanic Griffiths remaining despite Wolves’ insistence he would return to the Midlands to see out the final year of his contract. Chairman Rod Petrie failed to persuade Wolves to sell, and a bid to buy Lyle Taylor from Falkirk was equally unsuccessful, while Rowan Vine only arrived a few days before being asked to dig out his passport for Sweden.
Help would appear, at last, with Fenlon finally admitting – having evaded the question all week – that the club are in talks with Swindon Town striker James Collins, four days after it was reported a bid of £200,000 had been accepted by the Wiltshire outfit. Insisting that as far as he was aware, no deal had yet been concluded, Fenlon said: “We are in negotiations with him and his club. We’ve been working away on it and we would hope to get it done.”
It was, when all was said and done, the only bright piece of news emanating from Easter Road on a night most will want to quickly forget.