THE scenario where a Hibernian Scottish Cup-winning captain could be sent to Coventry in time for his next match seems ludicrous. This, however, could yet be the fate which befalls James McPake.
Like so many of the Hibs team, he belongs elsewhere. After the colour and noise of Hampden Park, the centre-half’s next competitive outing may well be an npower League One outing with newly-relegated Coventry City.
Of course even if Hibs lose this afternoon, McPake won’t be allowed to slip quietly away. He has distinguished himself in green and white to the extent that he has been hailed by Pat Stanton, who will gladly welcome McPake into the pantheon of club legends if he leads the Easter Road side to glory over Hearts this afternoon.
Stanton has been impressed by McPake’s steadying influence at the back, where he has been able to lend steel to a hitherto fragile Hibs rearguard. And lend is the right word; McPake is alert to his situation with Coventry, where he has a year left of his contract. It might be a difficult thing for Hibs fans to have to hear on such a momentous morning, but he sounds determined to return to England, if only to prove a point.
McPake helped save Hibs from relegation. He might well have been the one to make a difference for his parent club, who slipped into League One a few weeks ago.
“I’m contracted to Coventry and I’ve got another season down there,” he said. “Unless I hear otherwise I will be reporting back down there on the first of July. I’ve had a great time at Hibs and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, every training session and just being about the place.”
However, McPake agreed that he has some unfinished business to take care of at the Rioch arena.
“I’m determined to have a future with them because they’re my parent club and I have no other option but to go back to them – and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
“That’s where I’ll be unless things change – and things do change in football. But at the moment I’m not out looking for it or begging Hibs to try and buy me.
“I’m just concentrating on the game and after that I’ll go on holiday and weigh up my options, if there are any options. There might not be. I have another year on my contract at Coventry so I’m not overly concerned.”
No-one who has seen McPake in action since Pat Fenlon brought him to the club in January could dispute that he is a fighter. This impression is further strengthened with knowledge of his circumstances when the last Scottish Cup final was staged, between Celtic and Motherwell. McPake was lost in a painkillers-induced daze following surgery on his back to correct an injury sustained while paying against Ipswich Town.
You could have told him Hibernian had finally won the tournament after their century-plus wait, and he would have believed you. “I can’t remember watching it because I would have been so zoomed out on painkillers, that’s the God’s honest truth,” he said. “It’s quite a turnaround and to be leading a team out is fantastic.”
He credits the surgeons, doctors and physios who helped him return to his physical peak, and scoffs at the suggestion he is injury prone: “How can three broken bones in your back as a result of someone kneeing you in it, and which required surgery, be regarded as injury prone? It’s nice to ram it down people’s throats.” In person McPake lives up to his reputation as a no-nonsense defender; earlier this week he reiterated a previously stated opinion that his greatest achievement with Hibs has already been accomplished, whatever happens this afternoon.
“I am sitting here two days from the final and I would still say staying in the SPL was more important than winning the Scottish Cup,” he said matter-of-factly. “I know some Hibs fans will disagree with what I say, but I won’t go back on it.
“That was not just a media-type comment from me at the time, I thoroughly meant what I said. Managing to stay in the SPL has let us focus completely on the cup final. It would have been terrible if we were sitting here as a First Division club going into this game, but thankfully we are not.”
He is slightly embarrassed by the attention that has been fixed on a side who he knows have not covered themselves in glory in the league this season, having only secured survival less than a fortnight ago. He does, however, promise that “there’s no way the Hibs team of nine months ago will turn up on Saturday”.
He is humbled by Scottish football legend Lawrie Reilly’s contention that he would give up all he achieved in football to see Hibs lift a trophy that eluded the Famous Five side of the Fifties, just as it has so many other, less talented teams from Easter Road dating back to 1902.
“To be held in as high a regard and esteem as some of those boys from the past ... well, I won’t believe it,” McPake said. “We won’t ever be able to touch them.
“If we can bring the cup back to Easter Road the fans will probably say we’re as big a group of heroes, but I don’t see it that way. What they did for the football club was amazing. This is just a great chance for some of us and we have Hibs fans in the dressing room too, and they can’t wait for the day. It’s scary to think what will happen if we do win it.”
McPake’s Hibs career could be about to enter a delirious final act. He says he has fought with a devil sitting on one shoulder, who tempts him to think about lifting the cup in front of 25,000 jubilant Hibees. “I am trying not to think about it,” he smiled. “I am trying to keep my mind focused on the game. What happens afterwards will take care of itself.”
He has had experience of a cup-winning parade before, and it is one which still haunts fans of the club where he is currently excelling himself.
Back when he was still operating as a stiker, McPake and Ryan Harding were named as 17th and 18th man in the Livingston squad who enjoyed an unexpected victory over Hibs in the League Cup final at Hampden in 2004, a match which the Edinburgh side had gone into as strong favourites. He went on the time-honoured open-topped bus trip around Livingston – “I think there was about 40 people there” – but never felt he had truly been a part of the success, and his career only kicked on when club manager John Robertson, the legendary Hearts striker and regular hammer of Hibs, switched him to the position of centre-half.
McPake knows it will be a different story today, if he can help finally bring the cup back to Leith.
‘If we win it then I’m probably going to cry’ - Zaliukas
THE closest Marius Zaliukas has so far come to winning the Scottish Cup is watching film of the celebrations when Hearts last won the trophy in 2006. He found even that enthralling enough, and expects that if he experiences victory for himself today he could be moved to tears.
“I watched the videos of Hearts winning the cup six years ago, and last month after the semi-final against Celtic I went on and watched them again and watched all the former players celebrating,” the centre-half and captain said. “The cup was at Tynecastle and all through the streets of Edinburgh and it was amazing to watch. All of my body got goosebumps when I watched that video. If we do win it, then I’m probably going to cry.
“I know all of the old Hearts legends. I spoke to the 1998 cup-winning team recently at a function in the club, but I know John Colquhoun really well as he is my agent. He told me all about how important this game is. He finished playing ten years ago and he’s still so excited about this final against Hibs.
“It would be great if I was invited back to Tynecastle in ten years’ time as the Scottish Cup winner of 2012 – and it will happen. Everyone is so excited and we all want to do it. I believe we will do it.”
Now the Hearts captain, the centre-half arrived at Tynecastle just a few months after that victory over Gretna six years ago. He has seen managers come and go, and witnessed several different squads be assembled then be taken apart again. At first, he did not expect to stay so long himself: now, still only 28, he sees no reason why he should not stay a while longer.
“I was excited to come over here, because it was a huge step for me,” he said. “In Lithuania there were 200 people at games and at the Lithuanian final there are only around 1,000. I remember getting a phonecall at 9am before training in August 2006 and it was Vlad [Hearts majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov] and he said to me: ‘Get ready, you’re going to Scotland this afternoon’.
“It was a big step for me and I’m happy I took it. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d still be here after six years. Lithuanians were coming in and leaving and I thought that would happen to me, but I’m still here. I’m now third or fourth oldest in the team, but back then I was one of the youngest.
“It has been hard at times. It was really hard to adapt to the lifestyle and football style over here at first. I never thought about going home, but it was tough.
“Even the traffic was a different way to Lithuania. Everything was different, but I’m glad I’ve lasted six years and I hope I’m going to continue.
“I am a Jambo for life now. It’s a special club and it is now in my heart.”
While Zaliukas may have taken the bulk of his six-year stay to regard himself as a “Jambo for life”, many Hearts supporters gave him that accolade a lot quicker thanks to a certain goal against Hibs. It was towards the end of his first season at the club that the centre-half scored a goal against today’s opponents which was doubly memorable: not only did it give his team victory against their rivals, it also spoiled the celebrations which had been planned that day at Easter Road.
Having just won the League Cup, Hibs decided to parade the trophy after the derby, which they were expected to win against a depleted Hearts team. But Zaliukas’ strike was the only goal of the game, and instead of leaving to allow their rivals to get on with the party, the visiting supporters remained in the away end, chanting “Bring out the wee cup” for almost half an hour before eventually agreeing to depart.
It would be fair to say that Zaliukas has not enjoyed the uninterrupted adulation of the Hearts support since then. His frequent disciplinary lapses have caused problems for the team, and his inability to concentrate for the full 90 minutes has also been costly at times.
In big games, however, he has tended to show his best form – and he is fully aware just how big today’s match is. “This is the biggest Edinburgh derby ever. I keep reading everywhere in the newspapers about this game and everyone is so excited.
“Six years ago, I remember watching how everyone celebrated the Scottish Cup final win over Gretna, and this weekend obviously this will be bigger. It’s the biggest derby game ever in Scotland.
“This is a bigger game than against Celtic or Rangers. When I was a young boy, Kaunas used to play Celtic or Rangers in the Champions League qualifiers so I thought that would be the big game, but then when I came here and saw the Edinburgh derby I was like ‘wow’.”
He is a different kind of captain from his Hibs counterpart James McPake, being less assertive and less obviously inspiring. But with experienced players such as Andy Webster alongside him he does not need to take such an obvious leadership role, and is happy to see himself on a par with his team-mates, not in any way ahead of them.
“I will be very pleased if we win the cup, but it doesn’t matter who is the captain,” is how he expressed it. “We need a team performance to bring home the cup. It’s going to be a good achievement if we do it, and I will be very happy to be captain.”
It is now three years since Hearts lost to Hibs, since when they have gone ten games unbeaten in the derby. Zaliukas does not take any particular encouragement from that statistic, simply believing that the Hearts team which takes the field today will be good enough to get the better of Hibs.
“I don’t think it means a lot that we have a good record against Hibs. You can forget the ten games without defeat. But I’m confident it’s going to be 11 in a row.”
Scottish Cup final on scotsman.com
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