Hibs won't care how it happened - as Motherwell rue Scottish Cup heartache in penalty thriller
Whoever said it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it obviously wasn’t a football fan.
Hibs booked their ninth domestic cup semi-final in seven seasons by defeating Motherwell on penalties in this Scottish Cup quarter-final and by the time the dust settles and the fans’ fingernails grow back, that is all that will matter.
But, going all the way to a shoot-out, it proved a more arduous task than it might have been after controlling the vast majority of the match and moving into a 2-0 lead with just 10 minutes remaining.
Instead, Motherwell came back at them, when Ricki Lamie pulled one back two minutes later and then Tony Watt levelled in the 88th minute.
This was not expected to be straightforward for Jack Ross’ men, with Motherwell taking four points from a six in the last two meetings at Easter Road.
The condition of the Leith pitch has shouldered some of the blame for those results, with the home side seemingly forced to deviate from their preferred style of play. But after Wednesday’s win over Livingston, which was enough to guarantee them European football, there was relief that the surface had responded well to the six weeks’ rest the fixture list had given it.
Happy to have a stage suited to a passing, flowing game, Hibs made the most of that in the first half of this contest, working the ball along the deck as they found team-mates and areas to attack their guests, who, unfathomably, looked willing to give them the space and the time their build up play thrived on.
Enjoying the greater possession, the home team were unable to convert that into a lead, though.
Going in at the interval, that lack of cutting edge will have nagged them, especially as their guests had issued a warning midway through the first half when a counter-attack almost allowed them to make the breakthrough.
Thankfully for Hibs’ cup aspirations, the weighted ball between Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon got caught up under Chris Long and forced him to check his run and play in Alan Campbell instead. The midfielder’s dig from the periphery of the penalty area was a decent height for Matt Macey, though, and he pushed it way from the target.
But the away side struggled to get a foothold and Hibs continued to dominate play, working their way forward at regular intervals, playing the ball through the midfield and out on the flanks where their interplay and the pacey directness of Martin Boyle’s running caused the likes of Nathan McGinley problems.
The Australian striker was not the only one probing for an opening, though, as the midfield offered support and Kevin Nisbet was involved in creating opportunities as well as trying to finish them, while Paul McGinn was back at his best, galloping up field and serving up some delightful balls on a platter.
And at the back, the Hibs defence were well on top of anything their rivals could conjure up.
The only fly in the ointment was the way Declan Gallagher was able to thwart Christian Doidge, matching his runs to the back post and doing enough to deny him when crosses, high and low, were whipped or curled in.
But the Welshman did eventually get free in the 51st minute and rose to head his 12th goal of the season past Liam Kelly.
With Hibs finally engineering the lead their play thoroughly merited, there was little in the way Motherwell were playing to suggest what transpired. The visitors lacked the kind of purpose and drive expected in a cup tie and it was only after Jackson Irvine grabbed the second that they really came to life.
Kelly had done well to come off his line and block a Boyle shot but when the ball broke to Nisbet on the edge of the area, his strike was turned into the net by Irvine and allowed to stand despite the midfielder being offside.
Motherwell responded, though, and when Lamie’s looped cross-shot dipped in at the back post, the previously one-sided tie kicked into life.
The tension was palpable and Hibs tried to hold out, but Watt ensured extra time when he finished off Stephen O’Donnell’s delivery from the right.
Having slipped up in two semi-finals this season, the question was whether another cup campaign was about to come to a painful and premature end, especially as Graham Alexander’s side looked a more potent force at the beginning of extra time. But, the Hibs manager has been adamant that his players have evolved over the course of what could still be a fabulous season and learned to cope with the pressure their lofty targets bring.
They proved that resolve in the final stages and although a minor ruckus at the end of extra time, when sub Melker Hallberg was rugby-tackled to the turf, saw Alex Gogic receive a second yellow card, his team-mates took care of the penalty shoot-out in his absence.
Hibs keeper Matt Macey, who, as has been the case throughout the Scottish Cup run, started the game in place of Ofir Marciano, and all eyes were on him – but he didn’t have a save to make as Motherwell’s Mark O’Hara sent his effort over and Steven Lawless was denied by the post.
With Boyle, Hallberg, McGinn, converting their efforts, the fact Nisbet had seen his shot saved was rendered insignificant as Porteous stepped up to become the unlikely spot-kick hero as Hibs booked yet another trip to Hampden.
How they got there won’t really matter to anyone associated with the club, they’re just happy to be there.