Paul Heckingbottom outlines how Hibs players stepped up to stop Celtic
Paul Heckingbottom declared himself proud of his players after watching them stretch their unbeaten run to nine league matches with a well-earned point against Celtic.
But as happy as he was, the Hibs head coach admitted he was a little disappointed not to have seen his side win the match although, in the end, it was goalkeeper Ofir Marciano who was named man-of-the-match after pulling off impressive saves.
Heckingbottom said: “I’m delighted for the players, proud of them. We asked them to do a lot of things today which is a test for them and going to leave them a little bit exposed when we try to press high.
“When they are trying to do what you ask, you back them all the way. Looking back on it and seeing exactly what I expect and how it can benefit them. They can take confidence.”
As a newcomer to Scottish football, Heckingbottom had expressed his surprise at the apparent acceptance taken by those this side of the border of Celtic’s superiority and of clubs seemingly writing off their chances of pinching a point from a team which has one hand on an eighth successive Premiership title.
The Glasgow outfit’s financial might does, he agreed, make it tough for the rest but, insisted the Yorkshireman, other teams should try to make it as difficult as possible for the Hoops.
It may take some time for that mindset to change, but Hibs kicked off as if they’d taken their head coach’s words to heart, Celtic goalkeeper Scott Bain taking a Daryl Horgan shot at the second attempt, the Irishman fizzing a ball across goal which was just out of reach of Stephane Omeonga before the little Belgian midfielder had Bain throwing himself to touch his effort round the post.
All that in the opening six minutes but, there again, it was probably nothing more than Neil Lennon and his players expected, Hibs boasting two draws and a win against Celtic last season. And, only weeks before Lennon’s departure as Hibs head coach, his team, while engulfed in a mid-season slump, somehow managed to conjure up a 2-0 home win against Brendaan Rodgers’ team.
Celtic had, of course, enjoyed a Scottish Cup victory the first time Heckingbottom had come across them although he was adamant that, other than quality finishes from James Forrest and Scott Brown, his players had acquitted themselves well.
He had no doubt reminded them of that fact and there was certainly a belief about his players with Mark Milligan anchoring the middle of the park with those in front of him evidently free to roam wherever they wished when the opportunity arose while mindful of their defensive duties.
As such it took Celtic a full 26 minutes to create their first opportunity, Marciano rising to touch over a curling shot from Olivier Ntcham as Lennon’s side began to come into things a little more.
Heckingbottom, though, would have been happy that Celtic had more or less been kept at arm’s length during that first hour although, other than those opening minutes, he would have been looking for his players to have tested the visiting defence further.
But it did take a timely interception from Jozo Simunovic to prevent Stephane Omeonga playing in Marc McNulty before Paul Hanlon “took one for the team”, felling Jonny Hayes as he sped into Hibs’ penalty area, the defender following Flo Kamberi, Mallan and Omeonga into referee Nick Walsh’s book.
From the resulting free-kick, Marciano again rose superbly to get his fingertips to Odsonne Edouard’s shot which was threatening to find the top corner of his net before getting a hand to a later shot from the Frenchman.
But it was cross from Omeonga which almost broke the deadlock, Vykintas Slivka nodding it down into the danger area but, with both McNulty and Oli Shaw there, the ball somehow ended up in the arms of Celtic keeper Scott Bain.
And it took a wonderful last-gasp save from Marciano to hold on to that point, as he somehow touched away Simunovic’s header.
Heckingbottom, however hailed an earlier stop from Marciano, which thwarted Edouard again, as the best of the game. He said: “The one for me was the one-on-one, a strong hand. He made one against Kilmarnock as well, big moments but you need everyone. He was great, they are pivotal things and area stand out moments, but the full backs were excellent one v one defending, so were the centre backs.
“The front six without the ball were excellent and we were good with the ball in spells. We could be better and to win the game we had to score when we were on top in the first half or one of them just drop for us in the box second half. You could see the game took a big lull second half, both teams.
“The weather took its toll, the tempo just went flat. Both teams made subs to win the game, brought on more attacking players and it lifted it again in the last 20.”