The Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera once wrote "the perfect match would end 0-0".
A cheerleader for the catenaccio style which defined Italian football for decades, he was a ‘devout difensivista’. Yet, if there was one game which was going to challenge the view of the legendary scribe, change his opinion even, it was at Fir Park ten years ago today.
In 90 or so madcap minutes, Motherwell and Hibs produced one of the greatest games Scottish football has ever seen. Perhaps the most entertaining of all time.
‘The 6-6’ is now synonymous with the two teams and a midweek May evening in North Lanarkshire.
The penultimate game of the 2009/2010 campaign, this wasn’t your nothing-to-play-for, head-already-on-the-beach type of encounter. There was just a point between the sides with a place in Europe at stake.
Originally meant to take place on Thursday, May 6, but because of the general election that day the showdown had to be moved forward 24 hours due to the proximity of a polling station to Fir Park.
The alteration saw it clash with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur on Sky Sports on the Wednesday evening. The Premier League duo were playing for a place in the Champions League. Few, when looking at their TV guide, would have envisaged Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Vincent Kompany and Carlos Tevez being upstaged by Giles Coke, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Colin Nish and Graeme Smith.
But upstaged they were.
‘Avalanche of goals, deluge of mistakes’
While the game in Manchester was like a school disco, dance floor empty, kids scared to make a move and attract any attention, the encounter at Motherwell was akin to a wedding reception that had gotten out of hand, the free bar having been drunk dry.
Fir Park was bonkers and encapsulated the very best about Scottish football. An avalanche of goals, deluge of mistakes, booing fans, angry players, baffled managers, a dodgy pitch and perhaps one of the finest goals scored in Scottish football.
With the help of reduced ticket prices a crowd of 6,241 piled in to witness it all unfold, 1200 more than the previous game at Fir Park between the sides on a Saturday.
A run of six consecutive defeats had seen Hibs drop out of the running for third place – on Christmas Day they were just five points behind league leaders Rangers.
John Hughes and assistant manager Brian Rice had considered going to Fir Park with a more pragmatic approach, knowing a draw would keep them one point behind Craig Brown’s Motherwell going into the final day when Hibs’ hosted Dundee United and the Steelmen went to Ibrox.
“I was talking about it with Brian Rice the other day, we were going to go there and maybe play a three-man midfield, just with the two wingers and one striker,” he told the Evening News. “We just said ‘that’s no us’.
“As soon as we said that to each other, that made our mind up, go to Motherwell, albeit away from home, we were going to have a go. We went with a real attacking team. There was not much protection for the back four but we were going to have a right go. Thirty-five minutes in we were cruising.”
Hibs were an attacking team, and they were cruising.
The front four of David Wotherspoon, Derek Riordan, Anthony Stokes and Colin Nish ripped their way through the Motherwell defence time and again.
Nish opened the scoring after an incisive move involving Wotherspoon and Stokes. It offered a glimpse into the freedom bestowed on the forward players under Hughes.
When Nish completed his hat-trick with an almost identical goal to number one and two, turning in a low cross, it was 4-1 going on 8-1, especially if Motherwell gifted more goals like the one Riordan netted when he pounced on a slack Coke back-pass.
It was easy to see why only the Old Firm scored more than Hibs that season. Conversely, it wasn’t so difficult to understand why only bottom-place Falkirk and St Johnstone conceded more than the Hibees.
A 4-1 lead into half-time and there is little way back for Motherwell. 4-2? It’s an altogether different story, momentum and perception altered. John Sutton was allowed to get on the end of a Jim O’Brien cross with little resistance and head past Smith.
Despite the SIX goals, Willie Collum – who else was going to be the man in the middle for such an affair – added on a mere three seconds injury time.
The half-time whistle was met largely with disbelief, interspersed by applause and boos. For the Sky Sports commentators that night, Ian Crocker and Andy Walker, they delivered a moment of prescience between them.
Crocker: “They will be feeling they’re not quite out of it yet.”
Walker: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more goals.”
In the Hibs changing room at half-time, Hughes’ message was clear: “We were the better team, we can score four in the second half. That was the mindset.”
Come the 65th minute, the visitors were half-way there. As soon as Stokes had netted his second from inside the Motherwell six-yard box the cameras panned to the stands where many home fans were heading for the exit. The hope which followed Sutton’s header had well and truly dissipated.
While Hughes was thinking “oh no” following Coke’s strike to make it 6-3, replacing Riordan with Kevin McBride to shore up the midfield, those who had been watching the Manchester City v Spurs encounter were now venturing to Scotland. Something special was afoot.
In four second-half minutes 6-3 became 6-5, Smith beaten by a weak free-kick, then in the air by Sutton.
Fifteen minutes for Hibs and their fans to survive. Fifteen minutes for Motherwell to complete a famous comeback. Fifteen minutes that neutrals wished were 50.
“You’re as high as a kite, you think you’ve done it. You’re low, you’re up, you’re down,” Hughes summed up the emotions of the evening and the final 15 minutes.
He had watched his side be dragged from 6-2 to 6-5, then his goalkeeper career towards Jutkiewicz in the box. Even before making contact he was already offering his apologies, withdrawing his hands from the challenge.
Smith had his own arc to follow. From zero, to villain to hero. Ross Forbes, with the chance to write his name into the history books, squandered the spot-kick. Still 6-5.
The game hadn’t had the grand finale it deserved. That was to come.
Deep into stoppage time, Sutton launched a ball high into the air and deep into the Hibs half for Jutkiewicz to chase with Paul Hanlon stewarding him away from goal. But with the ball bouncing he unleashed a ferocious hit. There are few words that can do it justice. It was a missile. Fill the goal with every Hibs goalkeeper of the last decade and they weren’t keeping it out.
It was the cherry on top of the cake of absurdity.
For 93 or so minutes, Motherwell and Hibs produced a gift for Scottish football. An encounter which should be presented to future generations to help them understand this crazy game.
A flawed masterpiece. The perfect match.