THE players competed till the end, the supporters stayed until the end, and the manager stayed in the dugout till the end. This was another Scottish Cup final defeat for Hibernian, but it was night and day compared to last year.
There were faults in Pat Fenlon’s team, of course there were. Neither goalkeeper Ben Williams nor centre-half Paul Hanlon looked too clever at Gary Hooper’s opening goal for Celtic, and Hanlon and left-back Ryan McGivern appeared, between them, to lose the English striker at the second. But, while Joe Ledley’s goal for the champions late in the second half produced a 3-0 final score that was, if anything, an understatement of Celtic’s superiority, Fenlon could rightly take pride in his club’s contribution to the afternoon.
Last year, Hearts’ 5-1 victory also failed to reflect the Tynecastle team’s domination. Last year, many Hibs fans could stand no more after seeing their side go 4-1 down a few minutes into the second half. And last year, Fenlon himself was banished to the stands for the last few minutes of the game after gesticulating towards the Hearts support as they had been chanting his name.
Compared to that, yesterday’s loss represented a massive regaining of self-respect. That 111-year drought in the cup will now stretch that little bit longer and Hibs will have another chance of winning the trophy, but understandably, Fenlon was keen to reflect on the improvement made by his team over the past 12 months.
“It’s not as hard to take,” he said when asked how yesterday’s loss compared to last year’s. “Jeez, there’s no comparison with last year, none at all.
“I thought we contributed to the game today. We didn’t do that last year.
“I can’t fault the players for effort and maybe, if we score first when Eoin [Doyle] has a chance, it’s a different game.
“But there is no comparison with how we felt last year. I’m bitterly disappointed that we lost a cup final, but I can’t ask any more of my players – or the supporters – today. They were tremendous.”
Doyle’s chance, a close-range header which was acrobatically saved by Fraser Forster, came at the end of an opening spell in which Hibs had played at a higher tempo and apparently with a lot more eagerness than their opponents. But, if the striker’s attempt looked at the time as an encouraging sign for Hibs, it turned out to be their last attempt to unsettle their opponents. Barely a minute later, Anthony Stokes’s cross had been right-footed into the net by Gary Hooper, and Celtic never looked back.
“That probably was a turning point, Eoin’s chance,” Fenlon accepted. “That and the fact that we had started the game really well and then conceded a goal so quickly.
“That can hurt players and it did hurt us, because we definitely lost our way a little bit. But we came out and had a go in the second half, so while we’re disappointed, we can put a lot into it. We lost to a better side and there is certainly no shame in losing to Celtic.
“The fact that our support stayed right to the end says a lot. They kept the atmosphere going right to the end. I think they’ve known, through the course of the season, that these players have worked tremendously hard.
“So, when people ask me if it’s the same as last season, there just isn’t any comparison. There is no comparison with this team, certainly. That was a bunch of boys who worked tremendously hard for their club and were beaten by a better side.”
Hibs had already had to contend with the loss of two key defenders – Tim Clancy and captain James McPake – to injury. And it became clear midway through the first half that their most important player of all, Leigh Griffiths, was struggling with a thigh knock.
The striker had gone down at one point after being tackled, when although the contact had seemed to be with his ankle, he had clutched his thigh. There had been rumours on Friday evening that Griffiths was in trouble with a thigh strain, but when asked about those rumours, a Hibs spokesman had said that as far as he knew there was nothing in it. Fenlon had revealed at a press conference that afternoon that McPake was out and Clancy was struggling, and added that there were no other injury concerns in his squad. That remained the Hibs line that evening, and yesterday Fenlon insisted that Griffiths’ injury was one he had picked up during the match. “Leigh got a kick late in the calf and is sore,” he said. “He’s a little bit tight.
“It wasn’t in training. He just got an injury today during the game. He got a kick just below the calf and is a little bit tender.
“We obviously wanted to keep him on, but there is no point in risking him and losing the game,” the manager continued, referring to Griffiths being substituted in the second half. “The game is out of sight at that point so we don’t want to do any damage.
“If we were still in the game, we might have taken a risk. But the fact that we were out of it meant there was no point at that stage.”
As Fenlon had mentioned the word “risk”, this reporter then asked him if at any stage he had been tempted to throw caution to the wind. For as long as they were only two goals down, Hibs were still in the contest, and a goal at any stage during the first half-hour of the second half, improbable though it might have been, could have at least sown some doubt in the minds of the Celtic players.
The manager was not happy. “It’s easy to sit in the stand or in the press box and talk about taking more risks, you know?
“We played 4-4-2, we played with a wide man. What more do you want me to do, play five up?” He paused for a few seconds, then got up and left.
It would be wrong to say that a respectable defeat was the limit of Fenlon’s ambitions because his team began the game in impressive style and at no stage, even when they were 3-0 down, did they display the lack of spirit the Hibs team of 2012 had done. But the Irishman is above all a pragmatist, and perhaps, playing the percentages, he knew there was little point in Hibs losing their shape in a last desperate bid to get a goal back.
The cup final always brings the season to an end. But Fenlon is determined this will be far from the end of his restoration work at Easter Road.