Erratic Hibs toil to get the balance right

Hibs Michael Nelson squeezing the ball into the Motherwell net. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
Hibs Michael Nelson squeezing the ball into the Motherwell net. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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IF ONE player, more than any other, epitomised Hibernian’s performance at Easter Road on Saturday, it was Michael Nelson. The big defender was nutmegged during the build-up to Motherwell’s second goal in a sorry opening half hour for the home side. He also scored the header that restored parity after Jordon Forster, his fellow centre-half, had pulled one back.

Hibernian 3-3 Motherwell

Scorers: Hibernian - Forster (42), Nelson (75), Heffernan (78); Motherwell - Sutton (11, 90), Ainsworth (28)

Nelson was good and bad, a bit like his team. By the time Paul Heffernan netted what looked like the winner, only to see John Sutton bundle in a messy stoppage-time point-saver, the defender wondered if a more predictable – dare it be said, boring? – approach might have served Hibs better. Not Pat Fenlon boring, of course, but a little less, how shall we put it, entertaining.

Asked if “1-0 to Hibernian” was a chant that the club’s supporters would take to, Nelson replied: “They would if it was happening every week. The fans would have probably gone home happier if it had been 1-0, even if it was an absolutely awful win. It doesn’t matter what the scoreline is as long as you get the three points. I’d take a boring 1-0 win every day of the week rather than a game like this.”

Everything that was right and everything that was wrong about Hibs was condensed into these 90 mad minutes. Terry Butcher, their manager, described it as a Jekyll and Hyde performance that summed up their season. They seem to be capable of being solid at the back and dangerous up front, but not at the same time. “You can’t just be good going forward or just be good defensively,” said Nelson. “You’ve got to get a mix of the two and too often this season we’ve done one and not the other. We’ve got goals, but struggled defensively. Or been great at the back, but not seen games through by scoring. It’s a fine balance. You could be boring and keep it at 0-0 for so long, but then you run the risk of one goal winning the game.”

One goal was never going to win this game. Not the opener after 11 minutes, when Sutton converted Lionel Ainsworth’s low cross. Or even Motherwell’s second, when Ainsworth put it through Nelson’s legs and curled it beyond Ben Williams, the Hibernian goalkeeper.

“Sometimes you get done by a slack bit of defending. Sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say you got done by a brilliant piece of skill,” said Nelson. “And that’s what happened. It’s disappointing, but I’m man enough to admit he got me. When things like that happen it’s all about how you react.”

Hibs, as it happened, reacted rather well. Forster gave them hope with a headed goal just before half-time, James Collins hit the post just after it, and despite a lull that lasted deep into the second half, two goals in the space of three minutes turned the match on its head.

First came Nelson’s, a crashing header off the underside of the crossbar after Paul Cairney’s corner. Then it was Heffernan’s, converted with a flourish of his right boot just four minutes after he had come on to replace Danny Haynes.

There was a chance to kill the game stone dead, but Collins headed wide, and soon we were into time added on, a period that produced an equaliser every bit as chaotic as the game that preceded it. Iain Vigurs, who set up a spot of pinball with his cross into the penalty area, takes up the story: “It was a quick throw and I went past a few players then just tried to hit it low and hard into the box. I thought it was never going to go in – it went here, there and everywhere before big Sutty got his head on it, which he usually does.”

Butcher said Hibs had been guilty of “schoolboy defending”. It meant that his team, who have won only one of their last nine games, missed the chance to go level on points with sixth-placed St Johnstone, who have played a game fewer.

Stuart McCall, the Motherwell manager, was more satisfied. Although his team are shipping goals at an alarming rate – three in five of their last seven games – Sutton’s equaliser ended a run of three consecutive away defeats. Their supporters seemed happy enough. Told not to bring the noisy drum that is such a feature of their backing, they instead armed themselves with whistles and made a screeching din. Do not be surprised if the Hibs board quietly shelve their ban on percussive instruments in the away end.