It was Mad Friday in Aberdeen less than 24 hours before Hibs took to Pittodrie, the night when the whole of the Granite City descends on its pubs and clubs and enjoys the festivities.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if the Easter Road squad had partaken in some of the revelry, such was their insipid, lethargic and downright “abject” performance in a 4-1 humbling at the hands of the Dons on Saturday lunchtime.
Hibs were perhaps hungover from playing Celtic last Sunday and Rangers three days later in a gruelling run of three demanding fixtures against the Premiership’s top three in six days, but nobody expected quite such a collapse from Neil Lennon’s men. Rampant Aberdeen winger Gary Mackay-Steven bagged a hat-trick as Hibs suffered their first away league defeat of the season with such a meek display that it made you wonder how they’ve lasted on the road unscathed until mid-December.
To be fair, this was not a display normally associated with Hibs, who have performed with much credit and aplomb since returning to Scotland’s top flight in the summer. However, they were way off piste at a wintry Pittodrie as second-placed Aberdeen moved nine points clear of the Hibees and strengthened their claim as the best of the rest behind Celtic.
Their head coach, Neil Lennon, did not hold back in his post-match press conference.
“First of all, I have to congratulate Aberdeen,” said a clearly angry Lennon. “They were by far the hungrier team. They wanted it more, they played the better football, superior to us in all departments.
“However, Cowdenbeath would have beaten us with the attitude we showed in the game. We were abject, we were weak, physically and mentally really, really poor. I’ve not seen that from this team before and it’s unacceptable.
“I didn’t see one spark from any player. The midfield were non-existent in terms of what I want from them. . . too many touches, no physical presence, no drive.
“I have to take responsibility for it, but the majority of the players should be accountable for that performance too.
“It’s an amazing turnaround from the way we played on Wednesday night [against Rangers] and there’s no excuse for it. It’s not as if the preparation for the game was bad. We did the best we could in terms of preparation for recovery, for the travel, for getting them rested, so where that performance has come from, I don’t know. I am looking at my senior players, they were very, very poor.
Did fatigue play a factor, Lennon was asked, considering Hibs had just played both halves of the Old Firm in the space of three days and put in bundles of effort and quality?
“No, that’s nonsense,” the Northern Irishman retorted. “Lack of effort. . . you have to earn the right to play. Wherever you go, you can’t just turn up and go, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a nice game of football’. We started off brightly, but our decision-making was poor. We lacked any sort of quality.
“You can talk about tactics and formations all day long, but you’ve got to want it. You’ve got to say, ‘we haven’t started the game well and I need to put a challenge in, win some 50/50s’. Aberdeen walked right through us and that it is mental. That’s not physical, that is mental. They wanted it more. We just did not turn up, and I am not happy, as you can imagine. We got slapped.
Hibs, believe it or not, actually started the game reasonably well, with Brandon Barker making a few forages down the left. On 11 minutes, though, the first real moment of quality in the match came along and Aberdeen scored.
Hibs will be disappointed in their role in it. First, goalkeeper Ofir Marciano came to collect a through ball that crept into his box, but rather than pick it up, the Israeli panicked and kicked it out of play under only tepid pressure. From the throw-in, Aberdeen worked the ball to Kenny McLean, who delivered a lovely cross-field pass to Mackay-Steven on the left flank. The winger had too much space to cushion a first-time pass into the path of Graeme Shinnie, who strolled unchecked into the Hibs penalty area and slotted past Marciano.
The visitors’ heads went down and Aberdeen turned up the heat. Lennon responded by switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-2-1-2. The diamond brought brief respite. Defender Darren McGregor headed a presentable opportunity wide after Paul Hanlon nodded a free-kick back across goal. There were brief flickers of life from John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch in midfield. But then Mackay-Steven came along.
The former Celtic and Dundee United man has always caused Hibs issues. He scored the winner for Aberdeen earlier in the season at Easter Road. He struck twice in the last nine minutes of the first half here to end the game as a contest.
His first goal, on 36 minutes, was good skill and a slice of bad defending. He nutmegged McGregor just inside the box and brushed past Hanlon too easily before Marciano could only deflect his shot on to the post and the ball spun over the line. Then, right on half-time, Ambrose dithered in possession, slipped and gave it away, allowing Mackay-Steven to scamper unchallenged towards Marciano and score.
It was a bad mistake by the Nigerian, but Lennon refused to hang him out to dry.
“Efe is the least of my worries,” he said. “He’s the only one who tries to play. He’s the only one who takes responsibility. He’s been absolutely outstanding. I’m playing him at right-back to accommodate other people and he’s done really well. If he’s at fault for the third goal, then so be it, but he was the least of my worries.”
Lennon brought on Anthony Stokes and Steven Whittaker at half-time and went 4-2-4 in a last attempt to gather anything from the game.
A flurry of crosses came into the Aberdeen box and Simon Murray, hitherto immensely quiet, could have won a penalty when fouled by Andrew Considine.
Aberdeen, however, hammered in the final nail in Hibs’ coffin. Or perhaps that should be Mackay-Steven. He dribbled past some static Hibs defenders on the edge of the box before letting fly and watching his shot find the net via the post to complete his treble on 62 minutes.
Hibs did, remarkably, score a goal late on, although it was more down to fortune than design after Stokes’ effort took a huge deflection off Shinnie and bamboozled Dons keeper Joe Lewis just enough to find a way past him.
European places are not handed out in December, but Hibs’ past two matches against direct top-three rivals have done them no favours. “The goalkeeper looks short of confidence at the minute,” lamented Lennon. “My two centre-halves were poor, midfield three were poor and we showed nothing going forward, and once the malaise sets in, a team like Aberdeen smell blood and do their jobs very well.
“I have to suck it up, I’ll take it. There’s still a long way to go in the season in regards to second, third and fourth place, but it’s a blow.”