THE only matter of fact that tends to be employed when it comes to Hibernian in the Scottish Cup is they haven’t won the damn thing in 110 years.
There, that’s the obligatory reference out of the way. In, it is to be hoped, as direct and straightforward a fashion as the Leith club claimed a first semi-final appearance in the competition since 2007 – a feat that a highly contentious penalty played a major role in allowing them to pull off.
Yet even though that break meant they went 2-0 up after 19 minutes, they deserve credit for how they performed otherwise at a Somerset Park ground that is now expected will give more illustrious visitors the heebee-jeebees. Or, in the case of yesterday, was supposed to inspire the Hibee-jeebees in Pat Fenlon’s fragile side.
Instead, not until Ayr were left with only half an hour to retrieve by then a desperate situation did Brian Reid’s side show the drive and determination that has allowed the First Division side to scalp Hibs, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and much-vaunted fellow second-tier opponents Falkirk in their own environs across the past 14 months.
Fenlon’s team never looked like joining that list from the moment that Roy O’Donovan grazed a header past Kevin Cuthbert in six minutes. And the specifics of the opener, and the advantage doubler that rapidly followed tell all about how Hibs’ luck might be changing. The Irish forward didn’t get an awful lot of purchase on the ball that came to him from a George Francomb free-kick on the right. He did, though, do enough to send it on to the upright, which it clipped the right side of to cross the line.
While Ayr might have felt a little sore about that break, they had greater grumbles over what they saw as the possibility that O’Donovan might have been offside. When it came to the penalty that then allowed Hibs to seal the tie with more than 70 minutes remaining, they positively growled. A corner from the right seemed to have caused no problems, only for Steve McLean to blow for Andrew Greggan tugging at the shirt of Isaiah Osbourne that was missed by all. It was one of those spot-kicks for holding/pulling that have become a far more common feature in Scottish football in recent months. There are great complaints when they are not given, and great complaints when they are given. The Ayr players went bananas over the call, which proved pivotal when Leigh Griffiths whipped in the penalty with enough force, not to say panache, to knock the net off its mooring.
Ayr manager Reid then had an angry exchange at the touchline with McLean in which he looked as though he wanted to knock the referee’s block off, and for most of the first period thereafter his side seemed knocked off course by these unfortunate early events.
Hibs had a degree of control and assurance they have barely exhibited in a Scottish Premier League campaign they have spent attempting to stay out of bottom place, albeit they have shown a noticeable degree of improvement with two wins and a draw in their past three matches. They produced a craft that set them apart from the home side in opening them up. One corkscrew run from Ivan Sproule appeared certain to bring them their third goal only for the winger to play the ball in behind the ready-to-pounce penalty-box-stationed O’Donovan, which contributed to Cuthbert being able to block from close in.
Ayr did have their own version of the glaring miss in between Hibs’ two goals when Chris Smith only skiffed a header towards Graham Stack. Any power whatsoever on the cross he met four yards out would have brought a goal. It wasn’t until well into the second period that Reid’s men put the Leith club under any sustained pressure, and their possible comeback moment came and went when Stack produced a fine reflex save to deny a Greggan header.
It was left to both sets of suppoers in the 5,991 crowd to provide the interest in the late stages. The Hibs support were in fine voice in giving laldy to their club anthem and choruses of “we’re going to Hampden”. But Ayr’s fans played their part in offering up that “we’ve been to Hampden” – a reference to their Ayrshire derby League Cup semi-final. They took a pounding for their negative tactics then, but, as can be the way of such things, part of their problem yesterday was that they weren’t stuffy and cautious enough in their approach early on.
Maybe that does a disservice to the men-on-a-mission marauding of a Hibs side focused and intent on imposing themselves on an Ayr who had no real response for their power and poise.
With both teams in relegation tussles, the curious aftermath were both teams managers and players stating that they had much more important games to come on league business. If Hibs could win two games at Hampden in the coming two months, they might choose to rethink that sentiment.
• The William Hill Scottish Cup semi-finals draw will take place at the end of the sixth round match between Motherwell and Aberdeen today and will be broadcast live on Sky Sports 3.
MAN OF THE MATCH Isaiah Osbourne (Hibs)
A forceful, measured display that highlighted the gulf between the teams.
TALKING POINT The Hibs penalty that no-one seemed to see..
Referee: S McLean. Attendance: 5,991.