HERE was a portrait of Hibs that revealed everything about them from the good to the bad and the downright bonkers. They were 2-0 down at Easter Road yesterday, and they were 3-2 up, but more than anything, they were kicking themselves for conceding a chaotic stoppage-time equaliser that summed up this mystery of a match.
Just when it looked as though Terry Butcher’s side had pulled off a miraculous victory, Iain Vigurs slung a late hand grenade into the box and watched it explode. Amid the carnage that followed, it was just about possible to discern a block by Ryan McGivern, and another by Ben Williams, before John Sutton threw himself at a dropping ball to salvage the point.
Maybe Hibs should play the other way round. Their defenders had been hopeless in the first half, but when faced with a two-goal deficit, they proceeded to cancel it out. Michael Nelson, for instance, was nutmegged for Motherwell’s second, but later atoned with a headed equaliser.
Then, after Paul Heffernan looked to have scored the winner, all of his team’s worst frailties returned in a shambolic finale. Butcher, whose side have triumphed in only one of their last nine matches, and are still two points behind sixth-placed St Johnstone, could not disguise his frustration.
“That was a very sore one,” he said. “It had been a tremendous comeback and we had shown great character. And that has been spoiled by an unbelievably soft goal. We had umpteen chances to clear the ball. We’re going to work all this week on dealing with throw-ins and clearing the ball because that was schoolboy defending. It was a bizarre game and I think it sums our season up really – Jekyll and Hyde.”
At least Motherwell’s fans were happy. Denied the right to bring their drum to Easter Road because it made “too much noise”, they had spent much of the afternoon poking fun at the Hibs board. With an orchestra of whistles and kazoos, they made even more of a din than they would have with the banned instrument, one of which, incidentally, was allowed to be played in the home section.
Not that there was much cause for the Hibs fans to bang it, in the opening period at least. Flat and lacking rhythm, their team were a goal down after 11 minutes, two down after 28, and in danger of succumbing to a first-half drubbing reminiscent of the one they were given by St Mirren in January.
The goals came just as easily here as they did then. The first was beautifully constructed, initially by Stephen McManus and James McFadden – who curled a neat pass round the full-back – and then by Lionel Ainsworth who swept a low ball across the six-yard box. Sutton got in ahead of his markers to poke it over the line.
The second was rather more direct. Ainsworth, this time, took all the credit, firstly by putting the ball through Michael Nelson’s legs just outside the penalty area. When the Motherwell winger dashed on to collect his own pass, he still had the goalkeeper to beat, but his curling finish left Williams with no chance.
Hibs were being watched by their former striker, Leigh Griffiths, now of Celtic. From his seat in the main stand, it looked bleak for the home side, but just as they were preparing to be booed off at half-time, they gave themselves a lifeline. Paul Cairney provided the inswinger, which Jordon Forster headed high into the net from seven yards.
Bizarrely, they almost reached the interval on level terms. James Collins thought he had scored with a close-range snapshot, but Lee Hollis replied with an inspired block that pushed the ball wide. Then Forster’s free header, after a corner by Craig, flew wide.
While an equaliser would have been more than they deserved, the prospect of scoring one lifted Hibs. They nearly grabbed it shortly after the interval when Collins turned McGivern’s pass on to the post. When it rebounded to the same player, he lacked the balance and poise to convert. Danny Haynes then blasted over, after Cairney had slipped him through, and there was a lengthy lull in proceedings – punctuated only by McFadden’s shimmy and wayward shot – before Hibs again rallied. When they did, with quarter of an hour left, it was spectacular.
Two goals in the space of three minutes completed the turnaround. The first came when Nelson, anxious to atone for the earlier indignity, rose to meet Cairney’s corner and crash it off the underside of the bar. There was a brief moment of confusion before the referee ruled that it had crossed the line.
The third was scored by Heffernan just four minutes after he had replaced Haynes. Cairney, on the counterattack, again was the supplier, pushing the ball wide to the substitute, who planted it high past Hollis. It should have been the winner, as Butcher knows only too well.
Hibs: Williams, Forster, McGivern, Craig, Nelson, Hanlon, Cairney (Handling 84), Stanton, Haynes (Heffernan 75), Collins, Stevenson (Harris 66). Subs not used: Murdoch, Boateng, Maybury, Cummings.
Goals: Forster 43’; Nelson 76’; Heffernan 79’. Booked: None.
Motherwell: Hollis, Reid, Murray, Leitch, Hutchinson, Ainsworth (Moore 71), Lasley, Sutton, McFadden (Cadden 74), Vigurs. Subs not used: Hammell, Shirkie, Stewart, Thomas, Neill.
Goals: Sutton 12’, 90’; Ainsworth 29’. Booked: None.
Ref: S MacLean. Attendance: 8,277