GRADUALLY but noticeably, Hibernian are morphing from a collection of players into a tidy, if temporary, team.
In the immediate aftermath of Pat Fenlon’s men claiming their first Scottish Cup semi-final appearance in five years, there was a whole heap of unwarranted wrangling about the wrestling of Isaiah Osbourne by Andy Geggan that brought the SPL side a penalty and crucial second goal. However, television footage showed referee Steven McLean called it absolutely right.
Regardless of this, it is indisputable that everything occurring before and after the 19th-minute award offered stirring evidence that, even without their spot-kick, the visitors were too powerful, too adept and too resolute for their First Division hosts. It seems a long time since Hibs could warrant such descriptions being applied to them. Or indeed, the term that Roy O’Donovan, who set his team on the way with a glancing header from close in after six minutes, chose to describe the performance. “A good professional job,” said the forward, on loan from Coventry City whose strike was his second in three games.
One of five short-term dealers in the Leith side’s starting line-up, it is to Fenlon’s credit that there isn’t the look of jobbing journeymen about players such as George Francomb, Jorge Claros or James McPake. That would never be true of Leigh Griffiths either with his allegiances to the club. But his capacity for bad-boy behaviour can often detract from the fact that, as Motherwell manger Stuart McCall suggested recently, his inventiveness, incisiveness and impulsiveness means any front line with Griffiths in it can be bettered by only a couple of teams in the country right now.
O’Donovan is not oblivious to his strike partner’s on-field attributes, though his praising of Griffiths’ grey matter obviously had to be strictly game related. “I am loving every moment playing with him,” the 26-year-old said. “He is a really good player but also has a really good football brain. He isn’t selfish and if he sees you making a run he wants to slip you in.”
O’Donovan sees a range of benefits to having Griffiths and “one or two other local lads” in a squad that is otherwise a real hotch-potch in terms of the contract status and country citizenship of its members. “The local guys give that extra couple of per cent, though we are all giving it our best, and they let us know how special it would be to win the Scottish Cup here.”
Ah, cue talk of the 110-year absence of such an honour for the Leith club. And how did O’Donovan know about that bogey? “You [press] guys have been going on about it all week,” the affable Irishman laughed. It makes cup games take on a different feel for the club, O’Donovan said, even in acknowledging, as his manager stated bluntly, they have more important matches coming up in the Scottish Premier League, owing to the fact they sit second bottom. “There was a tension in the air before it, which made getting an early goal pleasing, because it helped settle us down. Garry O’Connor was actually talking on the bus about the hundred-odd years since the club last won the cup, but records are there to be broken and it would be something if we could be the team to do it.”
O’Donovan has only been to Hampden once, but not to watch football. He went there to have an ECG heart scan, when he was with Dundee United. “Maybe they wanted to see if I had one.”
Tickers among the Hibs faithful could be racing in the weeks ahead. Next Sunday’s Edinburgh derby will be the ultimate test of the Leith club’s mini-revival – they have two wins and a draw from their past three games, while the memories of last month losing nine goals in the course of playing Celtic then Motherwell, albeit they played well in a 4-3 defeat at Fir Park, remain fresh.
Indeed, though front and middle they really do look capable of producing in the months ahead, the fact that Ayr squandered two terrific openings tells that they still struggle to convince at the back. That said, Francomb and McPake were more than competent in Ayrshire. They weren’t ranged against a team that really went for them, though, in the manner that would have been expected of a team who have made a habit of upsetting the odds in cup ties this past 14 months – a run that started with them beating Hibs in last season’s Scottish Cup replay at Somerset. They were pretty tame for the most part, which didn’t square with them having beaten Hearts, Inverness, St Mirren and Falkirk in cup ties this season. “I can’t be too hard on my players with them having taken us into the semi-finals of the League Cup and now the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup,” said Ayr manager Brian Reid, who was mightily hacked off about the penalty, but may feel differently after watching reruns of it. “We have a game in midweek and it can take a lot out of a part-time team.”
Ayr’s part-timers, currently in the midst of looking like completing an impressive salvage job on their First Division status, have lit up cup competitions this season. Hibs could still provide the ultimate pyrotechnics.