THIS time, they will turn up. This time, they will compete. This time, they will do themselves justice – and justice may just be enough.
That is the hope, perhaps even the expectation, of Pat Fenlon: that his Hibernian team will play to the best of their abilities in tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic. They can do no more – and they cannot allow themselves to do any less.
Fenlon and those few members of his squad who remain from last year’s final have already won a victory of sorts simply by making it back to Hampden. After their 5-1 mauling at the hands of Hearts, there were some observers who expected them, like some badly-beaten boxer, to need time to nurse their wounds. Instead, they have shown the resilience that was Fenlon’s most notable characteristic as a player, and that is coming to be recognised as one of his principal virtues as a manager.
The thorough overhaul of the playing staff has been critical, of course. Fenlon had assembled last season’s squad in short order, and they did the job they were meant to do, saving Hibs from relegation. But after, if not before their supine performance on 19 May 2012, he knew there was no other job for which they were fit.
It only took weeks for the new Hibs team to make an impact in the league, and if they have long since fallen away from the heights to which they rose last autumn, at least they ended their SPL programme in convincing fashion. After months in which they could hardly win at all in the league, home or away, they rounded off their campaign with three wins, beating Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee.
“We’ve changed the players and there aren’t many left from last year,” Fenlon said yesterday. “After the final we made the decision that it was time for change and that’s the key. We’ve got a different group and attitude-wise and mentally-wise they’re well able to deal with this.
“When we came in” – Fenlon and assistant manager Liam O’Brien were appointed in November 2011 – “we had to make sure we stayed in the league. In a way if we had beaten Dunfermline [to secure their SPL status] and lost to Aberdeen in the semi-final it probably would have been easier and better. People would have thought: ‘That was quite good – we stayed up and made the semi-final’.
“But getting to the cup final helped us financially to bring in some of the players that we have now. So good things came out of having a good cup run. This time it’s about making sure we perform as a team.
“I think we’ve got better players; we’ve got a better core in the team. We’ve got a better attitude to games. If we do go behind, we feel we’re capable of getting back into it. We’ve proven that over the course of the season.”
Resilience has played its part, then, in the regeneration of Hibs. But Fenlon knows that something more will be required for them to get the better of Celtic tomorrow. Something that does not come so naturally to him – a sense of adventure.
While the manager’s overall emphasis has been on strengthening the spine of the team – and their seventh-place finish in the SPL is testament to their relative success in that respect – Hibs’ progress in the cup has come about far more because of a willingness to have a go. In the fourth round against Hearts, for example, the game was petering out into a goalless draw when David Wotherspoon decided to have a go, and saw his shot from the edge of the box deflect off Marius Zaliukas and into the net. In the next round against Aberdeen, again with no score, it was Gary Deegan who stepped up and let fly to score the only goal.
Victory in the quarter-final owed a lot to the self-destructive streak which struck the Kilmarnock defence at Rugby Park, but Hibs again showed enterprise. And in the semi-final against Falkirk they had no choice but to be adventurous after a calamitous first half in which they went 3-0 down.
No matter how Celtic play, Fenlon is convinced his team will need to show a similarly positive spirit if they are to win the trophy at last after 111 years. “I think we have to be on the front foot and make sure we get about Celtic and make it difficult for them. We know the qualities they have. They have players all over the park that can cause you problems. But we’ve got some good players in our team that can cause them problems too. We have to match their determination and effort, and make sure we’re committed to the game. That was the problem last year. Hearts started really well and we didn’t do that. When we get into that tunnel we have to be ready to play. We’ve got to come here and give a performance – that’s the be all and end all – and hope that it’s good enough on the day. We didn’t do that last year. The most disappointing thing was that we didn’t perform to a level that we felt we could get to.
“We’ve worked tremendously hard to get back to the final with the games we’ve had to play, so we’ve got to back that up and make sure all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. We have to give a performance that’s befitting the club.”
If they give that performance and come up short, so be it: Fenlon knows he cannot ask for more. But, while he is a practical, down-to-earth sort, he is as capable as anyone of dreaming. And he knows that, for this generation of fans, a win tomorrow would be a dream come true.
“Personally, it would be great to be the manager to do that,” he said when asked about the prospect of ending his club’s barren run. “You get to know a lot of the supporters, and you think it would be lovely to be able to change that for people, and have people leave here on Sunday, knowing that that’s gone, not to be talked about again maybe for another 100 years.”
He added: “If we could do it, it would be fantastic for everybody. It’s not just about me, it’s about supporters, people that have gone as well, people that have followed the club and haven’t seen it. It would be a great day for everybody.”