Speaking at the start of the countdown to this Sunday’s Scottish Cup final between Hibernian and Celtic, words such as “retribution” spilled from Tom Taiwo’s lips yesterday.
Although he had watched on television as Hibs’ last cup final appearance began to unstitch very quickly against Hearts last May, the midfielder was not referring to the need to make amends for this crushing experience. Taiwo only joined Hibs last summer, and arrived with his own tale of bouncing back after a cup final setback to cheer his new team-mates.
As with Hibs, Carlisle United, Taiwo’s former club, reached two successive finals. And again, as with Hibs, they were defeated by a dispiriting margin.
The only difference was that Carlisle were beaten by a team who could barely be further from them in terms of geographical distance, as opposed to their local rivals.
The competition was the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and Carlisle’s conquerors were Southampton, who ran out 4-1 winners in front of nearly 75,000 spectators at Wembley. Twelve months later, Carlisle were back at the same stadium for the final of the same competition. Fuelled by the desire to redeem themselves, Carlisle earned a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Brentford. After featuring only as a late substitute against Southampton, Taiwo had the extra satisfaction of playing a significant part on this occasion.
Understandably, Taiwo considers that having what amounted to a dry run at Wembley was invaluable. He now realises that such extracurricular pre-cup final activities as getting measured up for suits were an unwelcome, and unhelpful, distraction, and Carlisle quickly benefited from such hard-won wisdom.
It is an interesting phenomenon; Bradford City, for example, rebounded from their 5-0 defeat by Swansea in the final of the Capital Cup at Wembley in February to defeat Northampton 3-0 in the League Two play-off final at the weekend. Hibs, meanwhile, won the League Cup final against Celtic in 1972 having been beaten 6-1 in the Scottish Cup final by the same opponents at the same venue just months earlier. There is much to be said for learning from experience, particularly such bitter ones.
Although it didn’t feel like that at the time, Taiwo believes the defeat by Southampton was a constructive episode. “We played poorly that day,” he recalled, looking back at the Southampton defeat in 2010. “Things like suit hire and what shoes we were going to wear, things that had nothing to do with the football, took over. It was the first time that a lot of us had been to Wembley,” he added. “Tickets were playing massively on people’s minds as well.”
The next time around, Carlisle made sure that they did not allow anything to get in the way of the 90 minutes. “Everything like that was put to one side and it was purely football we focused on, and although we were up against a lesser team, the outcome was a lot better,” he explained. “It’s very difficult when you are a club like Carlisle and you get to something so prestigious. You want every detail to be right – the suits, how you are going to turn up at the game, where you are going to stay. But the second time around, because we had done it the year before, the novelty had worn off and we could focus on winning the game.”
Taiwo’s experiences are extremely pertinent as Hibs set out to banish last year’s memories. The Easter Road side’s build-up has been deliberately more geared to ensuring that the players follow their normal routine. Pat Fenlon has admitted that he erred in taking the squad away to his Dublin hometown in the run-up to last year’s final. While the reasoning was sound – the Hibs manager wanted the players to escape the inevitable hullabaloo before a first cup final clash against derby rivals for over a century – the result was that Hibs, with several on-loan signings at the club at the time, almost lost touch with how much it meant. This year Fenlon has urged his players to “embrace” the occasion.
Taiwo certainly intends to do that. When he signed, one of the first questions thrown at him referenced the outspoken comments made by Carlisle manager Greg Abbott, who claimed Taiwo was making a mistake in moving to Hibs. Taiwo dismissed the comments then, and has done so again now. He has recalled watching the 2007 CIS Cup final and being impressed by the size of the Hibs following.
Although he says he switched the television off after Pa Kujabi was sent off against Hearts last May – he suspected the performance would completely “unravel” – it did not put him off agreeing to come to Easter Road, and, he says, reaching the Scottish Cup final in his first season at the club has further “vindicated” his decision.
“He [Abbott] was critical but I don’t think they [Carlisle] have had a great season,” he said. “They were fighting relegation most of the time. I’ll let him do the talking and I’ll just enjoy my football. He must not have been up to Hibernian before. He’s not been here on a derby day when 17,000 fans are going bananas. He hasn’t seen the fantastic facilities and you wouldn’t often get the chance to play in an FA Cup final with Carlisle United.
“I’ve really enjoyed my first season up here,” he added. “I think I have improved as the season has gone on and found my feet steadily. Hopefully the fans will think I have a little form in the closing stages of the season.”
Taiwo dismisses suggestions that he should be dissatisfied with playing in Scotland, having moved to Chelsea from Leeds United early in his career. “When people ask me that question, I always refer them to something my nana tells me: ‘The cream always rises to the top’,” he smiled. There is another aphorism he hopes will become relevant this weekend: every dog has its day.