Blackburn Rovers spoiled Paul Hanlon’s big day, the English Championship outfit winning the Hibs’ defender’s testimonial match 2-0 with a quick-fire double early in the second half.
The visit of Tony Mowbray’s team represented a big step up in quality for Hibs following friendlies against Linlithgow Rose and Berwick Rangers, but the Easter Road side probably edged the first half.
However, Mowbray had revealed pre-match he intended to field a completely new team after the interval and that did the trick for the Lancashire club, former Dundee United midfielder Craig Conway turning to thump home a stunning shot beyond Ross Laidlaw before Willem Tomlinson managed to beat the substitute goalkeeper at the second attempt just four minutes later.
“This is clearly a big part of our preparations for the start of our Europa League campaign,” wrote Hibs boss Neil Lennon in his pre-match notes, a fact reflected in the starting line-up for the Easter Road club’s third and final pre-season match.
Few would be surprised if the XI who started against Blackburn Rovers wasn’t far off the side which will begin on Thursday night when NSI Runavik from the Faroe Islands arrive in Edinburgh for the first leg of the opening qualifying round.
The inclusion of Scotland midfielder John McGinn, whose absence in Berwick a few days ago as news that a £1.5 million bid from Celtic had been rejected by the capital outfit caused some concern among fans, would have soothed that anxiety to some extent, the hope being he’ll still be in place when the serious action gets under way.
If the ongoing interest from Celtic was any sort of distraction for McGinn it didn’t show, the 23-year-old getting himself about the park in typical fashion from the off, crunching into tackles and forcing Rovers Jayson Leutwiler to pull off a thrilling fingertip save.
All eyes, naturally, were on McGinn but, as Lennon also observed, this match was an opportunity to pay tribute to Hanlon, pictured left, a Hibs stalwart over the past ten years, someone who has now pulled on a green-and-white jersey 345 times and, as his manager admitted, a player he had admired from afar but not fully appreciated his talents until getting the chance to work close-up with him.
The occasional renditions of “Football’s coming home” from those supporters who had travelled from Lancashire, no doubt still exuberant following England’s 2-0 World Cup quarter-final win 24 hours ago, for Rovers’ first warm-up match were met with a predictable response from their counterparts.
If the day was meant to be all about Hanlon, it was hard to ignore McGinn’s drive and energy in a heat which saw referee Gavin Duncan call a halt to proceedings midway through each half to allow the players to take on water, his vision sending Oli Shaw running free only for his angled shot to be beaten away by Leutwiler.
McGinn, however, was guilty of losing possession only yards outside his own penalty area, robbed by Jason Davenport. His pass looked to have left team-mate Joe Nuttall with an easy chance to beat Hibs goalkeeper Adam Bogdan, but Lewis Stevenson came from nowhere with a perfectly executed last-ditch tackle. Laidlaw had replaced Bogdan for the restart, but he was beaten within four minutes, a stunning turn and shot from Conway fizzing past him and into the top corner of his net.
Two minutes later Laidlaw was lucky not to concede again as former Celtic player Charlie Mulgrew crashed a tremendous free-kick off his crossbar.
Rovers quickly added a second when Bradley Dack sent Tomlinson through and although Laidlaw got down at his feet, the Blackburn man had enough about him to knock the loose ball into the net.
Hibs attempted to hit back, Andrew Fisher saving at his near post from Florian Kamberi before the goalkeeper rose to get a glove on the ball as Shaw attempted to chip him.
By the final whistle, Lennon had used all eight substitutes listed, including his latest signing Stevie Mallan, getting more precious minutes into legs ahead of the start of what they hope will be a prolonged European adventure.
In the end, though, the English Championship side were able to see the game out with some ease.