BY KEVIN O’NEILL
There was more or less a place in Europe at stake as Hibernian made a trip to Fir Park to face domestic counterparts Motherwell on May 5th, 2010.
The Sky cameras were there for what was the penultimate game of the 2009/10 Scottish Premier League season with Motherwell, managed by former Scotland boss Craig Brown, knowing that victory over their Edinburgh opponents would guarantee them a fourth placed finish in the league, and with it, qualification for the following campaign’s Europa League.
Motherwell went into the game a point ahead of fifth placed Hibs, and getting the job done there and then was the most preferable scenario for the Steelmen, who wanted to avoid the race for Europe going to the final game when they would face a difficult outing away to the already crowned champions Rangers, where Motherwell had failed to win since 1997.
Knowing the scale of Motherwell’s task on the final day, Hibernian – who would travel to Dundee United in their last game – knew that avoiding defeat at Fir Park – and possibly even getting all three points – would leave them as highly fancied to secure a fourth place finish on the decisive final day.
Thus, the scene was undoubtedly set for a titanic battle, but with so much up for grabs there was a feeling, pre-match, that both sides might actually cancel each other out and that a scrappy war of attrition could play out.
On the contrary, what happened in a truly scintillating contest would lead to the craziest encounter imaginable and, indeed, the highest scoring match in the history of the Scottish Premier League; one that still lives long in the memory for everyone associated with both outfits and Scottish football in general.
It would turn out to be an almighty goal-fest, beginning with Hibs seeminlgly destined to run away with the three points only to be dragged back to parity in thrilling fashion by a never-say-die Motherwell team determined not to give up on their European ambitions without a serious fight.
Yet, the early stages were largely dominated by the visitors. And although Giles Coke would equalise Colin Nish’s eleventh minute opener for Hibs, targetman Nish had a hat-trick bagged by the 36th minute, by which time Derek Riordan had also netted, making it 1-4, before John Sutton (brother of the former Blackburn and Celtic star Chris Sutton) grabbed one back for Motherwell before half-time.
The home side’s mini revival would fall asunder after the break though, as an Anthony Stokes double brought the Hibs tally to six by the 65th minute.
By then, Motherwell simply had no answer to the Hibs attacking triumvirate of Nish, Riordan and Stokes.
The sharp and incisive movement of the latter pair seemed to go perfectly with the more robust approach of Nish, who felt that the trio’s relationship in the Hibs attack had reached its peak by that point.
“We had a great attacking threat with the three up top. Each player had different qualities but we played well together,” Nish said.
“As the big striker, it’s always great to have players around you who score plenty of goals, and between the three of us I think we got 50 goals that season. I played with Kris Boyd and Steven Naismith at Kilmarnock and that worked very well, and Steven Fletcher was also great to play with for Hibs. But the trio we had that season (2009/10) managed to find a great understanding and we were on top form when the Motherwell game came along.
“We felt quite comfortable after going 4-1 ahead.
“We really thought we could score a few more, to be honest, but it was end-to-end and Motherwell looked dangerous enough aswell. We were playing really well before half-time but probably not in complete control. We also knew that leading 4-1 and then 4-2 with a full half to play was still dangerous, but I suppose when Stokes got a couple after half-time we really should have finished the game off a lot better than we managed,” said Nish.
Indeed, they should have completed the job in much better fashion. But instead, it was after Stokes’ second goal of the game – Hibs’ sixth – that the real eye-catching story of the match would unfold.
For instead of lying down to die, Motherwell defied the rather large chunks of their own support that departed the stadium after Hibs’ sixth goal, to set the wheels in motion for the mother of all comebacks.
But to be able to dig yourself out of such utterly bleak predicaments is not something that any old side can accomplish.
You need a burning desire to genuinely never give up and to stick together for a united cause. Granted, you usually need a bit of luck on your side too. But as we will see in a moment, that wasn’t entirely lacking either, as Motherwell refused to throw in the towel and, quite simply, flung everything at a Hibernian side that could, arguably, have been accused of slipping into a state of over-confident complacency.
Midfielder Tom Hateley (son of the former AC Milan and Rangers forward Mark Hateley) scored Motherwell’s fourth goal of the night in the 72nd minute, after Coke had reduced the deficit to three. And Hateley, who soon moved to Polish football, insisted that Motherwell had never felt like a beaten team on the night, regardless of how many goals they trailed by.
“The great thing about that Motherwell side was that we genuinely had a great squad of boys,” Hateley said.
“The dressing room was perfect with a mixture of youth and experience, and the characters in there were just what was needed at the time. These type of things are what brings you back in games. No matter what happened in the game everyone just kept working hard for each other to get a positive result,” he added.
There was, it must be said, more than an element of good fortune in Motherwell’s third and fourth goals.
For the third, a Jim O’Brien effort came off the butt of the Hibs post and fell just kindly enough for the waiting Coke to tap home. The ball could have rebounded anywhere or gone out of play, but instead landed nicely for Coke; a sign perhaps that the Gods favoured a Motherwell comeback.
Then, the fourth, scored from a free-kick by Hateley, was aided by questionable goalkeeping by visiting netminder Graeme Smith.
As Hateley said: “Sometimes you just have to put free-kicks into a dangerous area and see what trouble it causes. To be fair, I was never going to shoot from where I was, over to the left side of the penalty area and about thirty yards from goal. For sure, you might fancy your chances from an unexpected position from time to time and try to catch the ‘keeper out, but in that case I was just trying to drop the ball in that corridor of uncertainty between the ‘keeper and the defenders and thankfully it snuck in.”
The ball, having looped beyond all the defenders and attackers in the box, wriggled under Smith’s body and merely dribbled over the goal-line. But, as they say, a goal is a goal, no matter how it crosses the line; and Hateley’s effort, no matter how unattractive, had given Motherwell real optimism for the remaining 18 minutes.
Within four minutes, the deficit was down to one when the powerful Lukas Jutkiewicz out-jumped Smith from O’Brien’s right-sided corner and headed into the roof of the net to further boost his side’s stirring fightback.
The Motherwell fans who had stuck with their team when matters looked gloomy were now buoyant, feeling that an equalising goal could be just around the corner.
And the stadium would burst into ecstasy when the all-action Jutkiewicz, constantly tormenting the Hibs rearguard, was brought crashing to the ground by Smith’s clumsy challenge in the Hibs box with three minutes left. Surely, the moment had arrived when parity would be restored?
Jutkiewicz had been the usual penalty taker during the season but on this occasion he gave way to substitute Ross Forbes to take the kick.
Smith, determined to atone for earlier mistakes and conceding the penalty, dived well to his left and kept out Forbes’ effort. Surely now, that was the end of it?
Hateley, however, saw things differently.
“Honestly, I never thought for a second that it was over after the penalty. When a game is as mad as that one and the score is 6-5, there’s a pretty good chance you will get another opportunity,” he said.
And yes, Hateley’s assumption that another chance would come Motherwell’s way was to prove accurate – though there was nothing clear-cut about the mere half-chance that Jutkiewicz would spectacularly turn into a dramatic 93rd minute equaliser.
As John Sutton hooked a long hopeful ball forward from near the halfway line, the already rocked Hibs defence was at sixes and sevens.
Jutkiewicz raced for the ball, marginally ahead of defender Paul Hanlon, who managed to shepherd the striker to the left of the goal, to a position from which it appeared he could merely hold play up in wait of the supporting cast.
But just as the entire match had defied convention, Jutkiewicz did likewise, to spin and shoot in the one quick and deadly movement, sending the ball flying across the face of Smith’s goal and soaring into the far top corner of the net.
It was an astonishing strike by Jutkiewicz, one so good that it prompted a giddy Craig Brown to compare it with Marco van Basten’s famous goal in the 1988 European Championship final.
Perhaps Brown’s analysis was proffered when the adrenaline was flowing, but it was a goal that will live long in the memory of the Motherwell fans, whose last real moment of glory had come in 1991 when they won the Scottish Cup.
“Thankfully, Lukas got a sniff of a chance late on and stuck it in,” recalled Hateley.
“For myself and the fans I think that goal and the game itself will never be forgotten. A match that was open and full of goals…who wouldn’t love it? That said, I would probably have preferred a 1-0 win and to have qualified for Europe there and then,” he added.
For Hibs, their late game capitulation had been dreadfully disappointing and their manager, John Hughes, quickly found himself deflecting the blame for the collapse away from his defenders, preferring instead to question why the Hibs forwards had failed to maintain their work-rate in the last quarter of the game.
To Nish, whose excellent hat-trick had been almost forgotten in the midst of Motherwell’s comeback, it still remains a mystery how Hibernian squandered the three points.
“I honestly cannot explain what happened at the end,” he said.
“But we lost some bad goals, there’s no doubt about it. In saying that, I thought we had got over the line but the equaliser was a great finish and you had to hand it to Jutkiewicz in that regard, it was a special goal,” added Nish.
Amazingly, Motherwell produced even more late heroics in the final game of the season against Rangers when scoring twice in stoppage time to earn a 3-3 draw against the champions.
However, with Hibernian winning 2-0 at Dundee United, thanks to a brace by Nish, the Edinburgh side would finish the season in fourth place to earn a Europa League place.
Ultimately, Motherwell would also qualify for the Europa League after Dundee United, who had already qualified for the Europa League through finishing third in the League, won the Scottish Cup final against Ross County.
“No matter what anyone says about conceding so many goals in a game, it really was a great match to have been involved in and a lot of people remember it so well,” said Nish.
“It was disappointing not to win the game but looking back it’s great to have been involved in a game like it. To score a hat-trick in a game like that was great and I’m sure I’ll watch it a few times in the years to come,” he added.
He might not be the only one, as that wonderfully entertaining night will always remain as one of the finest matches in recent Scottish football history.