Hibs striker Nish recalls dirty dozen

Colin Nish should have been sporting the widest of grins having claimed his first hat-trick for the club he'd supported all his life.

Instead the Hibs striker was the picture of dejection, sitting slumped in the Fir Park dressing room, his three goals all but forgotten having watched Motherwell mount a stunning fightback to claim a 6-6 draw in the dying seconds of the game.

That he had played a huge part in the game with the highest-ever goal tally in the SPL also meant little, the dramatic finale as Lucas Jutkiewicz fired home a "Marco van Basten-style" equaliser, leaving everyone in green and white shaking their heads in disbelief.

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Jutkiewicz's wonder strike also left Hibs' hopes of clinching fourth place in the SPL table and with it what, at that time, was the final guaranteed spot in the Europa League, on a knife-edge, John Hughes' players knowing they'd have to go to Tannadice for the final game of the season a few days later needing to at least match the outcome of Motherwell's result against Rangers.

A double from Nish, taking his tally for the season to 12, was enough to sink Dundee United and secure that place even though Motherwell had staged another astonishing comeback with two last-minute goals to draw 3-3 at Ibrox.

As it was, Motherwell also qualified for Europe, fifth place being enough as United defeated giant-killers Ross County in the final of the Scottish Cup six days later.

Now, as fate would have it, the computer which spews out the season's fixtures has Hibs headed back for Fir Park, the opening game of the season for these two particular clubs held back until noon on Sunday when, Nish insisted today, he'll happily settle for any sort of win.

Revealing his memories are as vivid now as in the minutes following that fateful night in Lanarkshire, the big hitman said: "Of course it was nice as a striker to get a hat-trick, but winning means a whole lot more.

"So scoring three and not winning didn't make it much fun.

Their equaliser was a wonder goal, one which I'll bet the guy will never score again."

Having notched his three goals in double-quick time during a first half which also saw Derek Riordan score to give Hibs a 4-2 lead, Hughes' players appeared to have put the game well beyond Motherwell when Anthony Stokes claimed two more, only for the Steelmen to score three in 11 minutes.

Even so, Hibs appeared to have engineered the luckiest of escapes when goalkeeper Graeme Smith, having pulled down Jutkiewicz in the last minute, redeemend himself by saving Ross Forbes' penalty only for the on-loan Everton youngster to conjure up that unforgettable equaliser.

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Amazingly Hughes lambasted his strikers afterwards, complaining they'd stopped defending from the front, an accusation which Nish admits had some merit as he adopted that well-known mantra that football teams win and lose together.

He said: "It was bitterly disappointing, of course, that night but we got there in the end. We knew we needed four points from our last two games and we got them. I think we deserved to finish fourth. We went through a bad patch and still managed to do it - just imagine what we might have done had we not had that spell when we just couldn't buy a win.

"But over the course of the season I think we proved we were in the top four in the country and it would have been an injustice had we not made it."

The irony, of course, is that having pipped Motherwell to fourth, Hibs now find themselves out of Europe, beaten 6-2 on aggregate by NK Maribor, while Craig Brown's team, having defeated Icelandic club Breidablik and Aalesunds of Norway, have only Denmark's OB Odense standing between them and a place in the competition's lucrative group stage.

While it is only a matter for debate, Nish believes Hibs could well have been enjoying a similar scenario had they been as battle-hardened as Maribor, the Slovenian side having enjoyed four competitive matches before lining up against Hughes' players.

He said: "Last season we had some good draws in the Scottish Cup but we got a hard one in the Europa League.

"But I think recent history shows playing European matches at this time of year doesn't really help Scottish teams. No matter how fit you get pre-season you'll never be completely there until you have had a few games.

"The other year we played Elfsborg from Sweden in the Inter Toto Cup when they were halfway through their season while we had barely started pre-season, and it showed. It was the same for Celtic against Braga so I do think an earlier start would help Scottish teams in Europe.

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"Don't get me wrong, Maribor were a very good team who'd probably give most Scottish clubs a tough time of it. I think sometimes in this country we tend to feel that just because we haven't heard much of a foreign team they can't be up to much.

"Maribor, though, play in Europe every season and have done fairly well. Having said that, however, we felt if we could have got the first goal at Easter Road we'd have a chance despite being 3-0 down from the first leg, but when they scored then that was it."

The long haul towards a European return begins on Sunday at Fir Park with Nish believing a good start to the season, as Hughes' players enjoyed a year ago, is imperative.

He said: "You don't really start thinking about Europe and the likes until around Christmas time but you do want to get as many points as quickly as possible."

While there have been changes at Easter Road, Edwin de Graaf, Michael Hart and David Stephens arriving, there have been more radical alterations to Brown's squad with goalkeeper John Ruddy, Jutkiewicz, James O'Brien and Giles Coke all leaving.

Even so, Nish is anticipating another tough match, He said: "We've tended to do all right at Fir Park, although we'd lost 1-0 there before that draw we'd gone to Motherwell and won 3-1 towards the start of the season.

"Motherwell have lost a few players but they are still in Europe which shows they are a decent side while Fir Park is never the easiest of places to go but there's no reason not to look forward to it.

"There's no chance it will be 6-6 again, although maybe someone should have a wee check with the bookies to see what odds they are offering."