A relative newcomer to Leith, Hibs keeper Ben Williams doesn’t buy into any talk of a Scottish Cup hoodoo
FOR those who live through the sorry tale every year, there is almost a serene acceptance. For those new to the scenario, the response is virtual disbelief. Generations of Hibs fans have come to terms with the fact that their team and the Scottish Cup are not on speaking terms. They try and try and try again and they have done for well over a century but still that particular piece of silverware eludes them.
“It is strange,” says Ben Williams. The goalkeeper joined the Leith side in the summer and for someone who enjoyed a football education at a club as successful as Manchester United, the notion of such a drought is hard to grasp. “When I see the size of the club and from what I know of the history of Scottish football, Hibs are probably one of the top four or five clubs in Scotland and it is amazing that they have gone so long without winning it. That’s like looking at the Premier League down south and saying someone like Arsenal will never win the FA Cup or have not won the FA Cup for 111 years! You wouldn’t be able to comprehend that so it’s definitely time to set the record straight. If you look at Sunday, if we can get the victory then not only is it a derby win but it also puts one of the biggest competitors for the cup out of it.”
Last season was a close one. It was also a painful one. Hibs reaching the final and then getting spanked 5-1 would have been fodder to feed the Hearts choir for a long time to come. The fact it was Hearts themselves who inflicted the damage means the memory will never be erased. It was bad enough when Hearts denied Hibs in the semi-final but last season plunged everyone associated with the Leith club to new levels of despair. Today, Hearts will be hoping to halt them before they even get going in this season. Williams is having none of that. And, he says, he is not alone.
But forget cup hoodoos. Williams is too smart, too level headed, too full of self-belief to hand the outcome over to fate. “No, you won’t get me renting a witch doctor for the day to come and wee or whatever in every corner of the pitch. I’m not overly superstitious. I think it’s just one of those things. What happened in the cup last year is obviously well documented and that scares a lot of people and a lot of people will be apprehensive because of that but the game is what it is and it is a fresh game and what happens will happen.”
Form would suggest that Hibs have as good a chance as any to end their winless run against Hearts – which currently stands at 12 games – and retain some hope of winning the Scottish Cup. But Hibs fans know that doesn’t always count for anything and the closer it gets, with injury woes unresolved, the more that will prey on minds.
“That’s nothing we have picked up on. We’ve not picked up on any negative vibes but there is danger going into any cup game as a favourite,” says Williams. “The whole giant-killing exploits of teams is well documented through history. Form doesn’t really help going into a derby, let alone one that is a cup game. So it’s pretty much irrelevant who is the favourite.”
Both sides are waiting to find out who is fit before deciding on the starting line-ups. Hibs have been without captain James McPake, Gary Deegan and Tom Clancy. Only McPake seems to have a glimmer of a chance. Hearts are without Danny Grainger and they are giving Dylan McGowan and Jason Holt until the last minute to see if they can make it.
“If anything, it’s an even keel,” says Williams. “But there’s nothing the fans should be nervous or apprehensive about because all the boys will be positive and going in there to win the game and I’m sure the Hearts boys will be the same. It’s just added spice, that fact that it’s the derby and the winner takes all.”
That was the case on 19 May and the match left Hibs with nothing – nothing but the incentive to clear out any deadwood and come back stronger.
Williams believes the club has done that. A consistent, committed player, with a winning attitude but none of the ego which often accompanies such traits, he epitomises the type of character enlisted by manager Pat Fenlon as he seeks to rebuild spirits and reputations.
“The manager has not only focused on the footballing aspects of the players he has brought in but also the character and personality of those players and that’s important because it has helped us gel and we know we are all striving for the same thing, we have all got the same hunger and the same desire, we are all eager to learn,” says Williams.
The first taste of an Edinburgh derby came in the second league fixture of the season. It wasn’t pretty, but for Hibs, it was a chance to regroup and reassert themselves after Hampden and the fact they battled hard and got a draw will have helped dispel any lingering negativity in the minds of those who survived the summer cull, insists the keeper. “The people involved at the time, the management staff and the players, everyone knows just how devastating a defeat that was for them but the manager has stressed that it is gone now and this is a fresh season and a fresh start and it was good to get the first derby out the way and exorcise a few demons and maybe the fans that stayed away that day or came along feeling apprehensive that Hibs would get well and truly beaten again were proven wrong by the draw and they will hopefully turn up on Sunday. This isn’t last season, this is this season and having got the first derby out the way, we can just concentrate on this game for what it is, the chance to progress in a cup competition.”
He says even taking the finale to last term into the equation, the fact that the players who were involved have come back to help Hibs to the kind of season they have enjoyed so far undermines claims that they lack mental steel.
“I have never had the opportunity to play in a Scottish Cup final, I’ve never played in an English cup final, so to comprehend it is difficult. Losing any game by that much, let alone in a cup final, let alone to your main rivals, is devastating. I have played reserve games for Man United against Man City and we have been beaten but we have also won games and it gives added spice to the games. I know this is the same competition we lost last year but it’s important for everyone to view it as a fresh start and to really try to get the win.
“But the guys have bounced back tremendously well. I’m sure it hurt people like James [McPake] and Leigh [Griffiths] and the manager but they have come back well and put that to bed. They have decided that we have to kick on and we have a point to prove and to be honest, from something that was such a negative, it’s probably a big incentive for them now.
“They can draw on a lot of that and they know they never want to be in that position again, no one wants to be in a relegation scrap, no one wants to get all the way to a cup final, doing fantastically well, and then get beaten as convincingly as they did, especially by your derby rivals. Hopefully nothing like that will ever happen again.”
But fortunes fluctuate. While Hearts are scrapping to pay bills and scramble up the league table, Hibs are filling the top-two void left by Rangers and snapping at the heels of leaders Celtic. But Williams says they are all remaining cautiously realistic. A top-six place remains the target, everything else is a bonus. But that won’t stop them fighting to retain second place.
A relative newcomer to the capital and still enjoying playing the tourist in his time off, he hasn’t become so embittered by the on-field rivalry that he can’t express some sympathy for his rivals’ financial plight. “Unfortunately that kind of thing is going on quite a bit in football now,” he says. “You feel sorry for the players, what they go through with late wages and the turmoil at the club but we have to focus on what we do and come Sunday we need to do what we need to do. It is strange in a way that they get a transfer embargo until mid-December when the window doesn’t open until January anyway but I’m sure it is made to have an effect in whatever way the men in suits deem necessary.”
The transfer ban means that the boys in maroon were denied any hope of adding Rudi Skacel to their ranks ahead of this game and the lads who have spent the past few months coming to terms with that May horror show will tell him, that’s probably a relief.