Hibs and Aberdeen yet again contrived to put on a turgid spectacle at Easter Road last night as a match long on effort and short on quality petered out into predictable stalemate.
The five meetings of these two sides in Edinburgh over the past two seasons have produced a meagre two goals and now three goalless draws.
What was once one of the most eagerly-awaited fixtures on the Scottish calendar is fast becoming the biggest turn-off.
These two teams have developed a dispiriting knack of being able to cancel each other out, particularly in Leith, and from the early stages of the latest renewal of hostilities, it was apparent that a low-scoring encounter was once again in prospect.
In short, last night’s bore draw was everything that Hibs’ exhilarating Scottish Cup semi-final win over Falkirk nine days previously was not. There was no chaotic defending, no wonder goals, no sense of panic and no unbridled euphoria. Instead, for the most part, it was a case of counting down the minutes until full-time on a mundane match which, despite a handful of dangerous Hibs attacks, never really looked like sparking into life. “It wasn’t a classic, certainly, although we probably shaded it on chances,” said Pat Fenlon, the Hibs manager.
“We were well worthy of our point, but we didn’t do enough to win the game,” was the assessment of Derek McInnes, who took charge of Aberdeen for the first time last night after replacing Craig Brown as manager. “I didn’t think we ever looked like losing it, though.” Fenlon had clearly hoped to carry some kind of bounce from his side’s previous outing into last night’s assignment as the side which took the field last night showed only two changes from the one which had finished the semi-final. One of them was enforced as the suspended Ryan McGivern was replaced by Lewis Stevenson at left-back, while Kevin Thomson, substituted in the second half against Falkirk, remained in the starting line-up, with Jorge Claros dropping to the bench.
Fenlon also kept faith with the 4-4-2 approach that had helped spark the second-half turnaround against the Bairns, with youngsters Alex Harris and Danny Handling flanking central-midfield pair Thomson and Tom Taiwo, while Chesterfield-bound Eoin Doyle came in for a rare start alongside Leigh Griffiths in attack.
It looked a vibrant-enough team on paper, but, on a bare Easter Road pitch which prompted the scorn of McInnes afterwards, neither side was able to get the ball down and play as the game degenerated into a battle of wills.
The players couldn’t be faulted for effort, but nobody on the pitch was able to rise above the turgidity of proceedings. As per usual, Leigh Griffiths was the one who looked likeliest to make something happen, but, on the whole, it was a frustrating night for Hibs’ talisman, who was generally well-marshalled by the Aberdeen defence. On the two occasions he was able to get shots on target Jamie Langfield, the Aberdeen goalkeeper, produced impressive saves.
This was a night when destruction reigned over invention. Every defender on the pitch could hold their heads high, but the attackers and midfielders on both sides just couldn’t get much going at all. Aberdeen were particularly blunt, playing out the whole 90 minutes without even getting a clear sight of goal. Hibs, without ever dominating the game, enjoyed a monopoly on the few clear chances.
Their first opening came after 12 minutes, but Griffiths’ overhead kick went harmlessly past Langfield’s left-hand post after James McPake had flicked on Stevenson’s free kick.
Doyle then flashed a cross-cum-shot across the face of goal from wide on the left after 19 minutes. Griffiths’ clearest chance of the night came in 24 minutes when he got himself clean through after latching on to a headed McPake clearance from his own half, but Langfield stood his ground to make a fine block from the Hibs striker’s powerful blast as he surged towards the Aberdeen box.
Griffiths was in on goal again two minutes later when he met a crossfield ball from Stevenson, but Dons centre-back Mark Reynolds did well to scamper back and pressure the forward into a rash shot which sailed harmlessly wide.
Griffiths, without getting much in the way of decent service, was at the heart of most of Hibs’ best attacks and two minutes into the second half, the striker latched on to a Thomson through ball and conjured up a sublime reverse pass for the in-rushing Handling, but the youngster drove a tame effort straight at Langfield from the edge of the box.
The closest call of the night came in 55 minutes when Doyle pinged an eight-yard effort against the outside of Langfield’s right-hand post after Harris had scuffed a Tim Clancy cross into the striker’s path. Paul Hanlon, who enjoyed a much-improved 90 minutes after his first-half horror show at Hampden, then saw a header from a Griffiths corner cleared off the line by Aberdeen sub Peter Pawlett before Griffiths almost won it with a trademark 32-yard thunderbolt, which was brilliantly tipped away by Langfield with six minutes remaining.
In the end, it was all rather subdued as referee Steven McLean called a halt to a match which, to put it mildly, failed to get the juices flowing. Aside from the satisfaction of their respective clean sheets, Hibs have moved a point clear of Hearts in the battle for city bragging rights, while Aberdeen headed back up the road having extended their unbeaten run at Easter Road in the league to seven games and three-and-a-half years.
Pretty much the only other piece of positive spin that can be applied to this grim encounter is that these two old adversaries won’t get the chance to throttle the life out of each other again this season.
Hibs fanzone: Your views on Hibs’ display
Ryan Bonar, Leith: “I thought it was a pretty poor match to watch and I don’t think the conditions helped. It was a pretty even first half, but I felt Hibs were definitely the better team in the second half. Griffiths had a couple of chances, but even he never really got going. I thought Kevin Thomson worked hard in midfield and was probably our best player. A draw was probably a fair result in the end.”
Drew McFarlane, Newington: “It was encouraging to see Fenlon giving the young lads a chance in the first team. There is nothing to play for in the league now, so he’s right to give lads like Caldwell, Handling and Harris a game. I thought we could have won the match in the second half as we created a few good chances. It was great save from Langfield to stop Griffiths shot which would have won it for Hibs. I think Aberdeen were very lucky to get away with a draw as they never looked like winning it.”
Kenny Warrender, Sighthill: “I felt Hibs did well enough to win the match. The weather made it difficult to get the ball down and play a passing game, but I thought the players worked hard for each other and with a bit of luck we would have won it. The supporters have been shouting for a more attacking formation and it was good to see Fenlon go with two up front. Both Doyle and Griffiths were unlucky not to score in the second half. I thought Harris and Handling did well and they will be regulars next season if they work hard.”
Sam Inglis, Niddrie: “ Hibs looked a better team than Aberdeen in most areas of the park and were very unlucky not to get all three points in this game. I don’t think the Hibs goalkeeper had a save to make in the whole game. It’s clear that Pat Fenlon is looking at these last few games to give the youngsters a chance and get them prepared for next season. I think we have some exciting talent coming through and Harris and Handling will be ready to step up next season. The defence also looked pretty solid for a change and I thought both McPake and Hanlon did well and didn’t allow Aberdeen any room. It was a disappointing result, but a good performance.”
Fraser McCallum, Tranent: “It was fairly dour match with both teams cancelling the other out. Both teams looked like they didn’t want to lose it rather than trying to push forward and win it. If Griffiths doesn’t produce something special then we struggle. We rely on him too much and I fear for next season without him. He was unlucky not to score near the end, but overall he had a fairly quiet game and I think we should rest him a bit before the cup final because he is the one player that can win it for us.”
Bill Keir, Port Seton: “We can’t be too disappointed with result because for most of the match we were the better team and dominated the play. Aberdeen are a hard team to break down and we were unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions. Only a couple of great saves from their keeper kept them in the match and on another day we might have scored a few goals. There is nothing left to play for in the league, so Fenlon must use these games to get the right team for Hampden.”