NORMALLY, the instruction from managers is to shoot when you see a glimpse of goal and do not try to walk the ball into the net. Mostly, it is sage advice.
Hibernian 0 - 1 Aberdeen
Scorers: Aberdeen: McGinn (77)
Referee: B Madden
Saturday at Easter Road, however, was an exception. Hibernian – or, to be precise, Leigh Griffiths – let fly from everywhere while their opponents took the points with a late strike that saw Niall McGinn advance into the box and score from almost underneath the bar.
Griffiths refused to let anyone else have a go at beating Jamie Langfield, rifling in shots that tested the Aberdeen goalkeeper, who flung himself this way and that. In truth, Langfield was given every opportunity to make the saves due to the distance from which the Hibs striker usually chose to shoot. Possibly, Hibs might have been better served had he attempted to feed the ball into space in the box on occasion. It was almost as if he was seeking to highlight the truth in Aberdeen striker Rory Fallon’s impish observation, made prior to the match, that Hibs were being “pulled along” by the striker, who has contributed half of his side’s total of 26 league goals this season. At times, it seemed as though Hibs really are a one-man team.
It is undeniably thrilling to see Griffiths, head down, wriggle his way through a clutch of defenders, and then draw back his foot. He certainly had his shooting boots on. On Saturday, however, he must have misplaced the pinch of gunpowder he normally rubs on the toe.
It got to the stage where his team-mates were within their rights to make a complaint. On occasions they threw up their arms in frustration at Griffiths letting fly with others waiting in better positions. He is a player in form, no question. Indeed, Saturday was the first time in seven games that he hasn’t managed to find the net for Hibs.
He is also conscious that this might well be the start of the long farewell, with his parent club Wolves expected to seek buyers for their player in January. He is clearly desperate to keep on scoring while he can with his boyhood heroes.
He just couldn’t quite find the finish on Saturday. When scoring a consolation goal against Dundee seven days earlier, he had been helped by a deflection from a defender that deceived Robert Douglas. No such luck this time around. Langfield read the flight of the ball well but would have been disappointed had any of Griffiths’ long-rangers found the net. It helped, too, that he was able to anticipate the shot long before it came.
If he saw Griffiths on the ball then he knew it was time to prepare for a fizzing effort being launched towards him. He was more than up to the task and his performance was made all the more impressive given that he hurt himself in the first half, when saving one of the few shots on goal that didn’t come from the boot of Griffiths. On this occasion, Eoin Doyle’s volley saw Langfield fling himself to his right and tip the ball past the post. On landing, he hurt his hip. “I didn’t think I was coming back out for the second-half,” he said. “It was agony. I gritted my teeth and got on with it.”
Mostly, it was Langfield versus Griffiths. “It was satisfying to keep him off the scoresheet,” said the goalkeeper. “He has been flying in recent weeks, and deservedly got a Scotland call-up. Keeping the score at zero for us is great. There are not many teams who will come to Easter Road and keep a clean sheet.”
This performance ended up being an impressive statement of Aberdeen’s intent. Remarkably, if Craig Brown’s side win at home tomorrow night against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, they will occupy the Scottish Premier League’s summit for at least 24 hours, their position near the top of the league made more laudable given the injury list at Pittodrie, with Brown having been deprived of seven possible first-team starters before kick-off. Isaac Osbourne then had to depart injured during the match itself.
Brown bristled a bit when one reporter made the suggestion that the victory might be described as “smash-and-grab”.
However, the Aberdeen manager quickly softened, since he knows that this needn’t be a criticism. Neither should the comment downplay the achievement of keeping Hibs at bay. Russell Anderson was superb for the visitors and, on the few occasions when he was caught out, he could rely on the excellent Mark Reynolds to help out with cover. “I don’t like to pick out individuals but I thought Anderson, Reynolds and the goalkeeper were magnificent, particularly Anderson,” said Brown. “Having said that, Griffiths still managed to get a few shots on goal but, fortunately for us, they were either saved or they narrowly missed. He is a pretty elusive character.”
McGinn’s 77th-minute goal was superbly taken after a mistake by Alan Maybury, who failed to clear a cross by Johnny Hayes. The onrushing McGinn was almost face-to-face with Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams when he stroked the ball into the net. Like Griffiths, he is on a goalscoring roll – nine in his last 11 league appearances.
For Hibs, it was a tale of what might have been. Had they won here, the first anniversary of Fenlon’s arrival – he was appointed a year ago yesterday – could have been spent at the top of the SPL. However, being so close to the top at this stage of the season, particularly after the travails of recent times, is reason enough for satisfaction.
While once an out-of-work Gordon Strachan’s presence in the directors’ box might have prompted excited speculation, Fenlon’s position now appears secure. Perhaps Strachan was at Easter Road on other business. Hibs chairman Rod Petrie is, after all, one of seven Scottish Football Association board members currently considering the question of Craig Levein’s replacement as Scotland manger.