Motherwell and Hibs are no strangers to dramatic clashes at Fir Park and this one was no different. In front of a raucous crowd, Hibs edged a rollercoaster encounter that had no shortage of drama. Five goals, seven bookings, a penalty and talking points aplenty. In the end, the visitors prevailed 3-2, but there were enough chances to get close to the 6-6 draw these two served up on the same pitch 11 years ago.
Martin Boyle’s 70th-minute spot-kick turned out to be the winner for Hibs. Motherwell led twice thanks to goals from the excellent Kevin van Veen and Bevis Mugabi, but Hibs showed little fatigue from their midweek trip to Andorra in Europe and responded via Kyle Magennis and Christian Doidge before Boyle’s clincher.
The drama started pre-match, when the news broke that Hibs were forced to omit 19-year-old Josh Doig from the matchday squad after interest intensified south of the border in the left-back. Doig has been linked with Arsenal and Watford over the past six months, but Burnley are now the favourites to sign him for a deal in excess of £3million, and a departure away from Easter Road now appears all but done. Trusty veteran Lewis Stevenson filled in for Doig, while Jamie Murphy and Joe Newell returned to the starting XI.
Motherwell manager Graham Alexander resisted to throw new defender Juhani Ojala straight into the team. The experienced 32-year-old, who has 31 caps for Finland, arrived last week from Vejle but took his place on the bench. Recent midfield signing Callum Slattery, a Toulon Tournament winner with England, was handed his first start as the ex-Southampton man tries to fill the void left by Allan Campbell.
Fir Park was awash with colour and noise as both teams emerged for kick off in front of 5230 people. Nearly 2000 Hibs fans were attendance to make this feel like a match we so often took for granted before the pandemic. It has been written enough times before, but it’s worth repeating again: football is nothing without supporters.
The excitement in the stands made for a frenzied opening period, with players flying into tackles. It felt that a goal was not far away.
Motherwell’s opener arrived on 13 minutes. The pre-match talk had been about a Hibs left-back, but it was Motherwell’s version that made it. Jake Carroll sent over a tantalising cross right on to Van Veen’s head and the Dutchman guided the ball back across goal and into the net.
Van Veen will be tasked with leading the Steelmen’s line this season. A summer signing from Scunthorpe the languid Dutchman led the line effectively, dropping into pockets of space and showing a good touch. He looks a player to keep an eye on.
Hibs’ response, however, was emphatic. Kevin Nisbet started the move off, finding space in between the Motherwell lines and sweeping the ball wide to the overlapping Paul McGinn. The full-back tried to find Murphy in the penalty box with a return pass, but the ball instead struck Liam Donnelly and cannoned into Magennis’ path, with the former St Mirren man – an impressive performer in midfield – having the simple task of netting from close range.
Hibs had wrestled control of the match back. Hanlon went close with a header before Murphy was set free, only for his attempted lob to go wildly over Liam Kelly’s crossbar.
However, their period of mini-dominance was interrupted on the half-hour mark. Slattery won a free-kick, Carroll clipped it into the box and Mugabi escaped the half-hearted attentions of Alex Gogic to plant a downward header past Macey to make it 2-1 to the hosts.
Hibs had a strong appeal for a penalty on 37 minutes when Magennis burst into the box and fell to the ground under a challenge from Carroll. The Motherwell man appeared to lean into Magennis, but referee David Munro was unmoved. Had he pointed to the spot, Carroll would have been sent off for a second bookable offence.
Hibs boss Jack Ross sprinted back to the away dressingroom at the interval, no doubt eager to rally his troops, and the second half mirrored the first in terms of tempo. The first chance fell to Boyle as he scampered into the penalty box, but his touch let him down at the vital moment. Then Murphy set a rocket of a shot towards the top corner, only for Kelly to fingertip the ball over the bar.
Ross sent on Doidge, behind his team-mates in terms of pre-season preparations due to a bout of Covid-19, on 54 minutes – and the move paid off handsomely just three minutes later.
In truth, the equaliser was all about Nisbet, who found an inch of space and rolled a lovely shot that cracked off Kelly’s post. The rebound squirted out into the six-yard box and Doidge careered in to bundle the ball into the unguarded net.
This match was wide open, with both teams searching for a winner. Van Veen showed his intelligence to drop deep and then send Kaiyne Woolery through on goal, but the Motherwell forward took too long to shoot and Macey blocked.
That miss proved costly. The ball fell to Nisbet in the box and his effort struck Stephen O’Donnell’s hand. A penalty was awarded and Boyle made no mistake. Motherwell had 20 minutes to respond.
They couldn’t manage it. Barry Maguire had their best chance, but he lashed over in stoppage time as Hibs held on for an important win and took the acclaim of a boisterous away end at full time.
Motherwell: Kelly; O’Donnell, Mugabi, Lamie, Carroll; Maguire, Donnelly, Slattery (Amaluzor 74); Woolery (Lawless 84), Van Veen, Watt.
Hibs: Macey; McGinn, Porteous, Hanlon, Stevenson; Magennis (Campbell 84), Gogic (Doidge 54), Newell; Boyle, Nisbet, Murphy (Doyle-Hayes 65).