Hibs headed for the European exit door but with their heads held high on a dramatic night in Copenhagen as Neil Lennon’s battlers came within an ace of pulling off a shock result against Brondby.
Few had given the Easter Road side any hope after they’d lost the first leg in Edinburgh seven days earlier but the capital side stunned their hosts as skipper David Gray levelled this Europa League second qualifying round tie.
Thirty minutes of extra-time couldn’t settle things, leaving matters to be decided on penalties, but John McGinn missed with Hibs’ first effort from the spot and although Paul Hanlon, Grant Holt and Martin Boyle converted theirs, the Danes were clinical, rattling all five past goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw.
It was a cruel blow for Hibs who went so close but Lennon and the 1,000 fans who made the journey would be rightly proud of the Championship side’s efforts over 240 minutes and more.
Otso Virtanen paid a heavy price for his blunder in gifting Brondby their 16th-second winner at Easter Road seven days earlier, the Finnish Under-21 goalkeeper axed from the starting line-up leaving Laidlaw to face a baptism of fire in his first game for the Easter Road club.
It was the 24-year-old former Raith Rovers player’s first competitive match since losing 5-4 to Annan Athletic while on loan at Elgin City in April last year, the move a brave decision by Lennon but one which was vindicated as Laidlaw pulled off a fantastic fingertip save to prevent Brondby skipper Johan Larsson scoring what would have been the winner as the game moved into added-on time.
Lennon was forced to watch from high in the Brondby
Stadion as he served an automatic one-match touchline ban having been sent off a week ago, his trust put in assistant Garry Parker who was joined in the dugout by Hibs academy coaching manager Eddie May and youth coach Grant Murray.
Brondby attempted to make the same supercharged start of a week earlier, overloading the right-hand side of their team at kick-off, five players lining up to head immediately for the danger area but this time round it was a ploy which didn’t work.
The vociferous home support were determined to influence proceedings as much as possible, howling their indignation whenever contact was made with one of their players and roaring with delight when Romanian referee Ionut Avram declared Marvin Bartley had fouled Teemu Pukki right on the edge of the visiting side’s penalty area, Larsson failing to test Laidlaw with an effort which zipped narrowly over.
It was clear from the opening half hour it was going to be a long evening for the men in green, strikers Holt and Jason Cummings rarely getting even a sniff of the ball with those behind them unable to retain possession.
However, Lennon’s players prevented Laidlaw from being tested in the way he might have been expecting until Christian Norgaard fired in a powerful shot from 25 yards which the goalkeeper pushed over the bar.
Hibs were going to have to make the most of any opportunities which came their way and McGinn’s clever turn on the bye-line created their first clear chance, his cross finding Gray unmarked but he was unable to direct his header on goal.
It was, though, a more encouraging start to the second period for the Scottish Cup holders and the Danish support suddenly became concerned at their side not getting it all their own way. And that anxiety grew even greater in the 62nd minute as Gray, the hero of that memorable day at Hampden, hauled the tie level, the wingback the furthest forward as Darren McGregor prodded on Dylan McGeouch’s corner.
Gray just managed to get the outside of his right boot to the ball, steering it towards the corner of Fredrik Ronnow’s net. The goalkeeper got his hand to it but was unable to prevent the shot slipping past him, sending the Hibs fans behind him delirious.
But Gray’s night came to a premature end after he was hauled down by Norgaard as he raced past the Danish midfielder, suffering an injury to his right arm which saw him replaced by Boyle.
The home side’s frustration was boiling over and assistant referee Valentin Avrum was pelted by a salvo of water bottles after giving a decision against them, an action which will land the Danes in trouble with Uefa.
And they were even more incensed three minutes from the end of regulation time as former Celtic forward Teemu Pukki raced on to Larsson’s through ball and was brought down by McGregor, who breathed a sigh of relief when Avram only produced a yellow card.
Hibs survived a good shout for a penalty in extra time when McGinn went into the back of Brondby substitute Corlu Rezan and they rode their luck again when Andrew Hjulsager’s effort took the slightest of deflections to carry the ball inches wide with Laidlaw beaten.
But the sides couldn’t be separated after 240 minutes of action – something which would have seemed hardly believable given the start Hibs endured at home – and so penalties it was.