WHAT a way to win it. What a way to sully it.
Nothing should have been allowed to take even the glint of the shine off the stunning and fully merited triumph achieved by Alan Stubbs and his Hibernian players at Hampden on Saturday.
Through no fault of theirs, the memorable day they rewrote a piece of Scottish football history is now inescapably bound together with a piece of infamy.
The lamentable post-match pitch invasion and crowd disorder initiated by Hibs supporters is detailed elsewhere on these pages and the consequences of it will inevitably sour the aftermath of the afternoon when one of sport’s most notorious hoodoos was finally laid to rest.
It is impossible and would be negligent to completely separate the shocking scenes witnessed on Saturday, including Rangers players being physically struck amid the chaos, from the breathless action which preceded it.
But there should still be some room to savour and reflect positively on what was one of the most absorbing, entertaining and dramatic Scottish Cup finals in living memory.
It was a contest Hibs dominated for lengthy spells, producing the more forceful and enterprising football, yet appeared destined to lose in a manner all too much in keeping with the long-established perception of them as chokers on the big occasion.
They confounded that view in the most emphatic fashion imaginable, refusing to bow to the seemingly inevitable this time around and at last wrapping their hands around their club’s Holy Grail with a compellingly resolute finish to the contest. Captain David Gray’s thumping 92nd-minute header provided a suitably fairytale ending to a 114-year long story which has previously presented Hibs with so many cruel plot twists.
Despite the late nature of the turnaround, this was no smash-and-grab win from Stubbs’ men. They were the brighter and more enterprising team from the start, the tone set by their third-minute opener from the outstanding Anthony Stokes.
The on-loan Celtic striker caused tremors in a wretched Rangers defence every time he got the ball, typified by that first goal as Rob Kiernan backed off him inexplicably. Stokes, cutting in from the left, needed no second invitation to coolly slot a right-foot shot across Wes Foderingham into the far corner of the net.
Stubbs’ pre-match observation that Rangers’ preparations for the final had not been ideal, given their three-week lay-off since the end of their league campaign, might have been viewed as more mind games on his part.
But it was a view totally vindicated by the ragged and often lifeless display of Mark Warburton’s team, who have lost the intensity and fluency which has characterised so much of their best work under his management.
Their 27th-minute equaliser from Kenny Miller, by some distance their most effective performer on the day, came very much against the run of play and after Hibs had scorned several chances to increase their lead.
Right-back James Tavernier, compensating somewhat for his defensive deficiencies, delivered a picture perfect cross which Miller headed powerfully beyond Conrad Logan.
Both teams struck the frame of the goal before half-time, Stokes with a thunderous right-foot shot at one end and Miller with another thumping header at the other. But there was no doubt Rangers were fortunate to be level at the break.
The second half brought a slight degree of improvement to Rangers’ play and they looked to have struck a potentially decisive blow in the 64th minute. Andy Halliday, one of so many Rangers players who failed to reach their own previous high standards in general play, conjured up a stunning left-foot shot from around 20 yards which arrowed beyond Logan’s left hand into the roof of the net.
It was a goal fit to win any cup final but Hibs were simply not prepared to allow that to happen. Instead of their heads going down, they discovered a fresh sense of resolve which carried them on to the front foot in the closing stages.
It was another on-loan Celtic player, Liam Henderson, who had a huge say in the outcome after he came on as a substitute for Liam Fontaine, with Stubbs ditching his initial 3-5-2 formation – which had effectively blunted Rangers for long periods – for a diamond midfield strategy.
Henderson’s excellent set-piece delivery proved pivotal. In the 80th minute, his corner from the right found Stokes at the near post. After shrugging aside Tavernier’s timid challenge, the Irishman headed home firmly from close range.
There was now an overwhelming sense that one team’s desire for victory was far more intense than their opponents and it was the team in green and white. The warning was there for the Rangers defence but wasn’t heeded.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Henderson lined up another corner from the right. It was equally precise and inviting. This time, it was Gray who took full advantage of minimal marking to bullet a header beyond the helpless Foderingham.
It was a moment which ensured the 11 names of Logan, Gray, Stevenson; McGregor, Fontaine, Hanlon; Fyvie, McGeouch, McGinn, Stokes and Cummings will be recited rhythmically by a generation of Hibs supporters and beyond.
What a pity so many of those supporters who witnessed it first hand contributed to casting a cloud on the sunshine of the club’s most glorious day.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, D Wilson, Wallace, Zelalem (Shiels 63), Halliday, Holt, Waghorn (Clark 75), Miller, McKay. Subs not used: Bell, Law, Burt.
HIBERNIAN: Logan, McGregor, Hanlon (Gunnarsson 83), Fontaine (Henderson 70), Gray, Fyvie, McGeouch, McGinn, Stevenson, Stokes, Cummings (Keatings 65). Subs not used: Oxley, Bartley, Boyle, Dagnall.