Lee Johnson said his Hibernian team were up against an Aston Villa side with “almost superhuman” qualities in their 5-0 Europa Conference League thrashing at Easter Road.
It was Villa’s first European tie in 13 years and this qualifying playoff first leg was won by the interval thanks to three headers, two by the England international Ollie Watkins and one from Jamaica’s Leon Bailey.
Watkins grabbed a hat-trick three minutes after the restart and Douglas Luiz added a fifth from the spot in the 74th minute to make the second leg at Villa Park next week all but academic.
Johnson tried to put into context the defeat – his 500th competitive game in management – as he turned his attention to the visit of Livingston in the Scottish Premiership on Saturday. He said: “I think we have a really good, honest bunch of players. I trust them and they give their all every day.
“There is a difference. Premier League players now are almost superhuman in their athleticism. It’s the super-elite from all over the world and that’s what you get. It was a good experience, and I don’t think it will affect confidence going into the Livingston game. But the physical recovery is key for us because we are a team that needs to use our running power and our physicality at our level to maximise our performances.
“I’m still proud of the club for being at this level on this stage. The reality is we have an English League One budget against a fantastic multi-international standard Aston Villa.
“It was clear there was a gulf in class, I can’t deny that. At half-time we wanted to salvage some pride and look like we were going to go and win the half. We started it pretty well and got behind them, but that’s the difference – one break, one poor positional error, one quality pass and a great finish.
“Having played against Premier League teams in the past, you cannot make positional errors because they’re punished. So I hope this experience is a good one, because your lessons can become your teacher. We can grow from having felt the quality of the athleticism, the touch and the tactical work that Villa did tonight.”
The Villa manager, Unai Emery, was pleased with the way his team approached their biggest away win in Europe. “If we weren’t competitive and serious we could have had problems,” he said. “We spoke before the match about how we had to respect the opponents and be focused and consistent in our gameplan. We knew if we weren’t we could have lost. We were focused and disciplined and consistent for 90 minutes. That is the mentality I want to create here.”
Emery revealed he replaced the goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez with Robin Olsen for the start of the second half because the World Cup winner “had a small pain and we didn’t want to take a risk with him”.
The former Hibs favourite John McGinn captained Villa and was a powerhouse in midfield, to the delight of his manager. “He is amazing,” Emery said. “I know you love him here more than me, but I think he is amazing. He always wants, from the first minute to the 90th minute, to run and to be competitive.
“I am very happy with him. And not only as a player, as a person as well. His commitment is very high. He is always positive, always smiling. In bad moments, in good moments, he always keeps the same mentality. It is fantastic.”