LIAM CRAIG has hailed Hibs’ pre-season tour of Iberia as a resounding success, despite unsightly crowd violence marring their final match against Nottingham Forest.
The 2-1 defeat to Billy Davies’ side was overshadowed by an ugly clash between both sets of supporters as half-time approached.
Make-shift metal barriers were used as missiles, while riot police waded in to restore order, striking several retreating Hibs fans and leaving one Forest fan bloodied.
There had been an incendiary atmosphere throughout, with nationalist chanting – the irony of having a Scottish manager and an Irish assistant, David Kelly, appearing lost on the Forest faithful – clearly audible.
Thankfully, there were no serious casualties and the second half was played amid a hush, with the supporters separated by a line of riot police who had already shown a willingness to wield their batons.
A Hibs statement read: “The club was saddened to note that an altercation took place at the Estadio Municipal VRSA during the first half.
“The incident was quickly dealt with by the authorities and the rest of the match passed without incident. Hibernian Football Club cannot condone any form of anti social behaviour or intolerance between rival groups.”
Craig, meanwhile, was keen to focus on what was a positive work-out against a talented Championship side.
“It has been an excellent tour, and you could see the benefits of the work we’ve done against Forest. They are a great side,” he said.
“You look through their team and they are packed with Premiership experience, quality throughout and they are a really physical side. But they didn’t bully us and, although we lost 2-1, there were great signs.
“I think we created the better chances, got the ball into good area and, if we had been more clinical, I think we would have won the game.”
Craig believes the six nights spent in Spain, Gibraltar and, finally, Portugal have succeeded in building fitness and sharpness, as well as bonding the squad as a group.
As a new signing, arriving in the close season from St Johnstone, Craig already feels part of the furniture at Easter Road, along with fellow new-boy Owain Tudur Jones, who scored his first goal against Nottingham Forest.
Indeed, the Berwick-born midfielder was a whisker away from claiming his first piece of silverware after making the move from McDiarmid Park – coming agonisingly close to winning Jimmy Nicholl’s club quiz.
“I was on a team with Alex Harris, Paul Cairney and Scott Robertson – we were fighting relegation from the start,” he laughed.
“We were asking what the forfeit was going to be for coming last because we were sure we would be down there. The fact we actually managed to come second probably tells you how bad Jimmy Nicholl’s questions were.
“It was some achievement, and we could have won it if we had listened to Paul Cairney – but he’s so daft at times that we thought better of it! A few of the non-playing staff ended up finishing last, so they gave us a good sing-song.
“Wee things like that, and getting to know each other on the training pitch every day is great. You look back on the week as a whole, it has been about team-building, getting to know each other.”
It was Craig who provided Hibs’ most notable attacking threat against Forest, showing a promising willingness to surge from midfield and seek to test the goalkeeper from distance.
He forced the first save of note from Reds keeper Dimitar Evtimovwith a low shot following some intrepid play on the wing from the Alex Harris.
Craig also unleashed two further efforts on goal, both of which narrowly missed the target, during an excellent 80 minutes at the Vila Real San Antonio Stadium. However it was Forest who claimed the lead, with Dexter Blackstock firing a superb penalty-kick into the roof of the next after being brought down by Lewis Stevenson.
The second half was played in a slightly eerie atmosphere after the violence of the first half had been quelled in such no-nonsense fashion.
Nevertheless the fare was watchable, despite the plethora of substitutions – Davies brought on every one of his substitutes at half-time – and the fans could at least rouse themselves to cheer a couple of fine goals.
Tudur Jones levelled scores with a beautifully delicate chip, having been played through on goal by Danny Handling, but parity was fleeting as Forest – albeit in their first match of pre-season – flexed their Premiership pedigree. Ishmael Millier displayed the power and pace to burst through the Hibs defence and bundle the ball past Ben Williams.
Craig added: “I’m sure the manager is working hard to bring one or two more players in, but I think all the signs are that things are coming together ahead of the European tie, certainly in terms of fitness and some of the football we are playing is excellent. It is really encouraging.”
Hibs (4-4-2): Williams; Stevenson, Hanlon (Donaldson 83), McPake (Forster 69), McGIvern (Mullen 69); Harris (Cairney 78), Tudur Jones, Taiwo (Gold 78), Craig (Stanton 80); Handling, Caldwell (Horribine 62). Subs not used: Murdoch.
Nottingham Forest (4-2-3-1): Evtimov; Lichaj (Greening 46), Lascelles (Halford 46), Collins, Harding (Cohen 46); Moussi (Guedioura 46), Lansbury (Paterson 46); McLaughlin, Cox (Majewski 46), Tudgay (Derbyshire 46); Blackstock (Miller 46).
Referee: Sergio Piscarreta