JUST after 4pm yesterday the last thing on Motherwell's mind was the prospect of finishing the day higher up the league table.
They had just gone 2-0 down in the second half to Hibernian, looking flat and beaten. What came next was dizzying: they planted three goals in Hibs' net in the space of 25 minutes, enough to claim three points and rise to second in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. The sheer unexpectedness of it made victory all the sweeter.
This was a Hibs win, thrown away. Instead of seeing the job through they folded, and looked all the more unsure of themselves when manager Pat Fenlon substituted Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle after Motherwell had pulled the game back to 2-1.
Griffiths is Hibs' top scorer and Doyle had twice found the net to give them control. Hibs then tried to defend a lead they were not good enough to protect and it left a sour taste in the mouths of nearly 8500 home fans. James McPake's red card in stoppage time after a second booking put the tin lid on their day.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was beaming afterwards, of course. Motherwell had needed a response after losing their William Hill Scottish Cup tie to Aberdeen on Tuesday, and they delivered one, eventually.
"The first-half performance looked like a hangover from the cup," he said. "We never got going, our attacking players never sparked, but there were a few choice words at half-time. There is quality in the side and when they produce it, this is what happens. I knew the game wasn't over at 2-0. We let a lot of people down in midweek but the lads keep producing."
Fenlon denied that his substitutions had drained confidence from his players. Griffiths was taken off in the 70th minute and Doyle six minutes later. That clearly sent a message around the stands – if not to the Hibs team as well – that the home side felt more confident about defending their narrow lead than adding to it. Soon they did not have a lead at all.
Jamie Murphy had scored Motherwell's first and when he added another in the 80th minute, Hibs wilted. Bob McHugh even had time to miss one great goalmouth chance – "I thought he had a tenner on two-all," said McCall – before converting another for the winner two minutes from time. Motherwell had completed an outstanding comeback.
"I don't think taking Leigh off changed the game," said Fenlon. "We were under the cosh well before we took Leigh off, I didn't think he did well today to be honest. The idea was to try to get another man into midfield and get a bit more of the ball than we'd had. It looked as if we thought the game was won at 2-0. We just stopped playing. The second goal seemed to give Motherwell a spur and knock us back on our heels and we maybe tried to see the game out rather than trying to kick on and score a third."
Hibs had begun brightly, going at Motherwell from the start and having the best of an unremarkable first half. At times they were wasteful but Doyle scored with two impressively assured finishes. A Hibs move seemed to be going nowhere when suddenly they made an excellent opening for David Wotherspoon, who crossed for Doyle to bury a header from eight yards out. For his second, Paul Cairney's long pass gave him a sniff behind the Motherwell defence and he had the speed to keep them at bay before a nerveless finish, tucking in a low ball from the edge of the penalty area.
Motherwell took an hour to wake. They had played some neat passing moves with precious little to show for them other than a Tom Hateley free-kick that floated over the bar. There was no hint of the stress coming Hibs' way, or the joy coming Motherwell's.
It changed in the 63rd minute. Motherwell pressed and suddenly Chris Humphrey pulled back the ball into the goalmouth, from where Murphy buried it. With 10 minutes to go, Michael Higdon nodded down to Murphy for another close-range conversion: 2-2. Hibs' fans sensed what was coming. Henrik Ojamaa burrowed down the left and fired the ball over for McHugh's winner.
It was the Hibs players' Christmas party in Newcastle last night. They had already given away the day's biggest present.