LAST season, the enforced omission of James McPake from the Hibs line-up was always the cause of some consternation.
But as they head into this afternoon’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic without their club captain, the man himself insists there are now enough strong characters as well as quality performers throughout the team.
There are the new guys like Ben Williams, Tom Taiwo and Ryan McGivern, as well as the survivors from last term such as Jorge Claros, who has rediscovered the consistent level of performance which secured him the move from Honduras, and not forgetting Leigh Griffiths. There are also youngsters who have been graduating with honours.
Jordon Forster is likely to retain his place as the injured McPake’s stand-in, while others such as Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell will hope to be involved. All three have forced punters and pundits to take notice, pulling out performances in pressurised matches, like the derby or the semi-final of this competition.
But none of them has dazzled in quite the way Alex Harris has. The 18-year-old has brought joy to the Hibs gameplan with his pace, ability to run at defenders, put in a decent final ball and also weigh in with important goals. Possessed of an impressive football brain and a down-to-earth approach, he also has a big game mentality.
“He’s brilliant. I think he is going to be the next special one,” says McPake. “There are a few in there who are going to be really good players but he is a special talent.”
Those who watched the semi-final attribute Hibs’ fightback to him. Yes, Griffiths scored the deciding goal but Harris scored the pivotal one. If it wasn’t for Harris that day against Falkirk, Hibs wouldn’t be taking to the Hampden turf today. His opener for Hibs when they were 3-0 down gave the team hope. He also set up the second and was, quite rightly, named as player of the round.
“He made his debut [in October] and I remember thinking that was going to be him,” says McPake, pictured left. “I’d seen him training with the first team and he’d been doing very well. Although he’s slightly built, he wasn’t scared or intimidated. I thought he might have been pushed through quicker but I think we are getting the benefit of him being brought through in bits and pieces. I think the manager has made the right call and now we are getting the best of him. I’m looking forward to seeing him over the next few years.”
An observer this afternoon, McPake can only hope his colleagues deliver in a way the club failed to do 12 months ago. That 5-1 defeat Hearts prompted him to leave the country.
“I flew to Dubai on the Sunday morning. That wasn’t the plan but I got away as fast as I could.” But it wasn’t the escape he had hoped for, with Hearts player Craig Beattie, pictured left, three seats in front of him! “I was walking back from the toilet and I kept hearing ‘James!’ and when I turned round I saw him and thought ‘oh no’. It’s not that he’s not a nice guy but I was trying to get away from him as quick as possible after what had happened the day before.
“We exchanged a few words and then I went back to my seat, put the wee eye mask on and the cover over my head, hoping there weren’t any more Hearts players on the plane. Now my wife is seven and a half months pregnant so, if the worst does happen, I won’t be able to fly anywhere this year.”