They were two occasions worlds apart. One, the final of the Champions League, the other the first semi-final of this season’s William Hill Scottish Cup. But, in essence, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez and Hibs manager Pat Fenlon faced the same dilemma of being 3-0 down at half-time and staring defeat in the face.
Benitez steered the Merseyside outfit to one of the most remarkable comebacks in European football history as Liverpool stormed back against AC Milan before going on to lift the trophy by out-gunning the Italian giants in a penalty shoot-out.
Fenlon, of course, conjured up a similar escape for Hibs, taking the Easter Road outfit to their second successive Scottish Cup final as they rescued a seemingly impossible situation against First Division Falkirk, avoiding the need for penalties as Leigh Griffiths claimed a winner just five minutes from the end of extra time.
Two nail-biting matches enjoyed in person by former Hibs boss Alex Miller, Benitez’s right-hand man in the Liverpool dug-out in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium in 2005 and, at the weekend, an interested spectator at Hampden where he watched Fenlon’s side outplayed as goals from Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Blair Alston gave the Bairns a lead they could only have dreamt of.
Although many may draw little comparison between the two games, Miller acknowledged there were similarities to be drawn as he recalled that night in Turkey when a first-minute goal from Paolo Maldini and a Hernan Crespo double had put the Rossoneri into a seemingly unassailable lead at half-time.
While reports have emerged of Fenlon “going radge” and giving his players, some of whom were said to have come close to blows, a “right rollicking,” Miller revealed there were no such histrionics in the Liverpool dressing-room despite the enormity of the task facing them against a side which included the likes of Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Andriy Shevchenko.
He said: “I remember Milan officials, guys in collar and tie although I don’t know who they were, being very joyous and hugging the players as they came up the tunnel.
“We never blew up, we asked the players to clear their heads of all negative thoughts such as ‘this might be the worst high-scoring Champions League final’. Then we talked of having a mindset, of having an objective which was to score an early goal. If you score within the next ten minutes they won’t panic because they are all experienced players. But you do then still have 35 minutes to go and I can guarantee you that if you get a second goal that whoever the opposition are – and AC Milan were a top team – they will panic because from being 3-0 up they’ve gone to 3-2 and know losing another it’s a draw.”
The introduction of Dietmar Harman and a switch to a back three allied to that team talk saw Steven Gerrard claw one back before substitute Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso made it three in six minutes for the Reds, no further goals being added by either side before Liverpool won 3-2 on penalties.
Although he obviously wasn’t privy to what went on in Hibs’ dressing-room during those vital 15 minutes of respite – Falkirk striker Lyle Taylor having passed up the opportunity to make it four for the Bairns before the interval – Miller said: “I thought Hibs would come back but I didn’t think they would win.”
Alex Harris’ first goal for Hibs threw Fenlon’s players a life-line, one they looked to have thrown away when Griffiths failed from the penalty spot for the first time in seven attempts this season only for the on-loan Wolves star to narrow the deficit before Eoin Doyle forced the game into extra time.
Miller said: “When Hibs equalised I didn’t think it was even going to get to extra time. I felt Hibs would then win it in the 90 minutes.”
While insisting Falkirk deserved great credit for their performance, Miller felt it was perhaps the Bairns’ inexperience which ultimately let them down following that devastating opening 45 minutes in which they had Fenlon’s players chasing shadows.
He said: “Falkirk controlled the game, the Hibs midfield never matched runs and allowed the Falkirk players to run off them. Hibs just didn’t have any penetration whatsoever, the midfield lacked pace to get up and down.
“At half-time I’d imagine Falkirk would be thinking they had the game won, the only danger for them was trying to make it a spectacle. Full credit to them, they gave everything and their manager should be very proud of them but I think they were just lacking that bit of experience. They tried to make it an open game, a spectacle when they should have shut up shop and said ‘this is winning football’.”
Fenlon admitted after the match he’d probably got things wrong initially but the changes he made after the interval did, in Miller’s estimation, contribute to the sensational turnaround in Hibs’ fortunes.
He said: “In the first half the ball was getting played in the air to Griffiths and there was nothing he could do as there was no quick support getting to him. But he and Doyle worked together, one coming off as Doyle did for Hibs’ first goal, that was the difference.
“Hibs’ wide players played higher up the pitch, Falkirk’s full backs were pulled towards the ball and Hibs started getting their full backs down the sides and were able to switch the play. That resulted in Darren Dods and Johnny Flynn being wider in their positions.
“But it was one of the best semi-finals I have seen in a long time, a brilliant game.”