Seven points and four places may today separate Motherwell and Hibs, but, as far as former Easter Road star Graham Mitchell is concerned, there’s nothing between the two teams.
While admitting he wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of tomorrow night’s crucial SPL clash, Mitchell insisted Fir Park is the place for thrill-seekers, with the Steelmen and the Hibees having shared an incredible 36 goals in their last six matches at the Lanarkshire stadium.
Add in the fact you have to go back almost 20 years to come across the last goalless draw between the clubs at that venue and it’s easy to see why Mitchell, now a frequent visitor to Fir Park as he works for the Press Association helping collate match statistics, eagerly looks forward to visits from his old club.
He said: “I don’t know why it is, but Hibs always seem to play well when they come to Fir Park. Go back a couple of seasons when there was that 6-6 draw, a brilliant game. Hibs were absolutely fantastic that night and at 6-2 probably thought the game was finished, but when Motherwell started to clock the goals up they found it hard to push the button to get going again.
“That was an exceptional match and one that everyone who was there that night will remember, but every game at Fir Park between these two teams seems to throw up terrific entertainment and talking points. I really cannot remember a poor Motherwell v Hibs match in the last five or six years – they’ve all been good games to watch.
“Last season, for instance, there was the Friday night match which had to be abandoned because of a floodlight fire. Again, Hibs had played really well and were a goal up, but when it came to the game being replayed they lost it 4-3, although it swung one way then the other for virtually the entire 90 minutes.”
Hibs notched four more goals against Stuart McCall’s side at Fir Park earlier this season, but the 4-0 scoreline hardly told the entire story, Motherwell’ Steven Hammell having a header which television pictures showed had crossed the line ruled out and then Michael Higdon blazing a penalty high over goalkeeper Ben Williams’ crossbar, while Leigh Griffiths claimed two from the spot for Pat Fenlon’s team.
The Capital club, of course, suffered their own heartbreak as referee Euan Norris and his assistant Raymond Whyte were virtually the only people inside Easter Road not to spot Griffiths’ stunning free-kick against Hearts had crossed the line by some distance.
Mitchell, however, can differentiate between the two incidents. He said: “Hammell’s ‘goal’ was a much tighter decision because Williams got down brilliantly to claw the ball away, whereas Griffiths’ shot was nearer the back of the net than the line.
“You have to feel for Griffiths. As a Hibs fan he’s probably dreamt of such a moment all his life, scoring such a goal against Hearts in a derby, and to have it taken away from him must have been soul-destroying for him. People will talk about it for years, particularly because it was the derby, but once the final whistle goes there is nothing you can do about it.”
Norris’ decision, allied to another gaffe only a couple of weeks earlier when a dodgy penalty call from ref Alan Muir allowed Dundee United to claim a late equaliser at Tannadice, has left Hibs hopes of a top-six finish on a knife-edge and could also cost the Easter Road club tens of thousands of pounds in lost bonus money.
Fenlon admitted the latest blow had left his players feeling deflated, but, Mitchell argued, they can use that sense of injustice to a positive end. He said: “I think both the referee and his assistant should have seen Griffiths’ shot had crossed the line, but Pat Fenlon can use the belief that they should have won the derby as motivation.
“Alex Ferguson took advantage of things like that at Aberdeen – referees, the press, everyone – to build up the belief among his players that everyone was against them.”
While Hibs are still scrapping for a top-half finish, Motherwell sit second and are now very much aiming to claim that runners-up spot behind champions-elect Celtic, but, Mitichell claimed that despite the home side being favourites to win tomorrow night, he wouldn’t bet against Hibs emerging with all three points.
He said: “I think if you are having a bet then Hibs will be the price, the value bet, but that isn’t to say they’ll lose. I just can’t call the game. A couple of weeks ago Motherwell had a couple of dodgy results and fell down to fourth, but all of a sudden they beat Celtic at Fir Park and have now moved back up.
“Hibs, despite the disappointment of not winning the derby, should be confident. They have the semi-final of the Scottish Cup and a good chance to make it back-to-back finals, while also very much in touch with getting into that top six.”
Much, of course, could hinge on the clubs’ respective top scorers, Higdon of Motherwell who has notched 20 goals so far and Griffiths, who has claimed 22, although they have vastly differing styles of play.
Mitchell said: “Higdon is more your traditional target man. He needs wee Henrik Ojamaa alongside him and Motherwell getting the ball into the box, but Griffiths can go short or get in behind defences and, as we have seen on many occasions, he is a real danger from outside the penalty area.
“It’s strange, though, that both are enjoying the fans being right behind them this season because there were spells last season when they were getting a bit of stick from their own supporters, possibly because when things are not going so well for you, then it’s the players they are expecting a bit more from that get it.”
Tomorrow’s match will give Hibs fans their first chance to see James McFadden since he made his surprise return to Motherwell, a move which has been replicated by Kris Boyd signing on again at Kilmarnock while, of course, Kevin Thomson is once again pulling on a green and white jersey for Hibs.
Mitchell said: “It seems to have become all the fashion at the moment. McFadden lacked a bit of sharpness at first, but in the Celtic game he showed his ability to get by players, he can still drop a shoulder and do that, while he’ll now be getting to the stage where his match fitness is coming.
“And I don’t think Pat Fenlon could have turned down the opportunity to have Thomson back. When the January transfer window shuts you think that’s it, all your business is done and then you get the chance to sign someone of his quality and experience and who is willing to play for free.
“It’s something which will work both ways, it gives Hibs a very good player who’s arrival will gee everyone up while, I am sure, if he performs as we know he can then I’m sure there will still be plenty interested.”