IF EVERY member of the Hibernian team had the self-confidence which Ben Williams exudes, there would be little doubt about the outcome of today’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
The English goalkeeper is a plainspoken and determined character, and thinks the Hampden showdown should be a straightforward affair.
“We need to make sure we give Falkirk the respect they deserve for being there, but also the footballing lesson that an SPL team should be providing,” is his prognosis.
Of course, if all of his team-mates had the ability which Williams has shown in this, his first season with Hibs, they would be a different side. Better, more consistent, and in the top six of the SPL instead of scrabbling around just a few points clear of the 11th place in which they finished last season.
To be fair to some of those team-mates, Williams has not had to deal with the trauma which afflicted some of them last season, when they lost 5-1 to Hearts in the final. It was the single most devastating defeat in the history of the club, and, as manager Pat Fenlon said this week, there is only one way for them to exorcise that memory: by winning the competition at last, 111 years after a Hibs team last took the trophy back to north Edinburgh.
Fenlon’s strategy last summer was clear and understandable. He released many of the players who had let him down that day, replacing them with physically tougher, more competitive men. Ryan McGivern and Gary Deegan epitomised the new, uncompromising approach, and for a time its success was obvious, as Hibs challenged towards the top of the league.
Since the turn of the year, however, some of the old failings have crept back into this new-look side. Their last convincing outing in the league came four days after Christmas, when they beat Celtic 1-0 at Easter Road. It is a far from inspiring record, alleviated only by the fact they have reserved their best performance since then for the cup - a convincing 4-2 victory in the last round at Kilmarnock. But it is not merely a question of asking which Hibs team will turn up today, the cup side or the league side. We also need to ask which Hibs cup side will put in an appearance: the one which played solidly in seeing off Hearts and Aberdeen in previous rounds before that inspired victory at Rugby Park, or the one that is haunted by the ghost of finals past.
Although he bore none of the guilt of last season’s final, Williams feels that as a member of the club it is still his responsibility to help repay the Hibs fans – more than 17,000 of whom have bought tickets for today’s game – for the suffering they went through then.
“We need to pay them back,” he says. “We’ve probably let the coaching staff down too by not getting into the top six, so we owe it to them too.
“Most people will be expecting us to win. Everyone knows in football there’s no formalities. We need to be positive and win the game.
“Falkirk have had some good results of late: they’re a good team and they’ve got a new manager. There’s a lot of positives going for them and they shouldn’t be written off. We should really be treating them with an element of respect, but also looking to get the job done.
“There’s an added motivation among those who played in the final last year. The captain, James McPake, has been through it last year, and we’ve had numerous discussions this week and over the past few weeks of targets we want to set for the season.
“He spoke in depth and truthfully about how it felt last year and how he doesn’t want to go through that again. The fans don’t want it either and neither do the club and the management staff. It’s something we are looking to put right.
“We had a meeting and we sat down and discussed what it’s like to miss out, what it feels like to get that close and not win the cup. Alan Maybury’s been there and got close, Scott Robertson’s been there and won the cup with Dundee United.
“It was about bringing in different viewpoints on how it feels to be that close to a cup final and win, or to be that close to a cup final and miss out. It was valuable. Sometimes I think you learn more from defeat.
“I’ve never been so close to something as big as this. It’s quite comfortably the biggest game of my career, with the pressure and the sense of what’s at stake. It’s a fantastic game to be involved in.”
Williams is a strong enough character to feel able to assert that Hibs, as the favourites and the team from the higher division, should win.
But he knows that there is nothing inevitable about the outcome, and that Falkirk will be looking to exploit the slightest sign of mental weakness. And he accepts that, if Hibs get their preparation wrong, they could even find themselves being subjected to another humiliation.
“It depends on the day. It can happen in football. There are elements that contribute towards it – refereeing decisions and people getting sent off and things like that. It would be incredibly disappointing to the club to get that close to winning the Scottish Cup and missing out on both occasions.
“We are really looking to win the cup this season and we don’t care who it is against. If we get past Falkirk and we meet Celtic we will be approaching it the same as we would any other team. We will be looking to win, not just roll over and hand the cup over to someone.
“The league form has been poor of late and it’s cost us the top-six finish we all wanted. It’s up to us to rectify that with a good cup performance to get back to the final and then we can focus on finishing seventh.”
The Hibs fans he has met in the street have left Williams in no doubt about how much winning the cup would mean. “A few people have expressed their desire to win the Scottish Cup and what they would be prepared to sacrifice to see that happen.
“It’s not printable, unfortunately. It would probably lead to a few divorces.
“But you’re definitely aware of the real hunger amongst these fans to be winning the Scottish Cup. It means a hell of a lot to everyone in Scottish football, and for Hibs to go 111 years without lifting it is far too long.”
For their part, Falkirk do not see much difference between 111 and 112. Their form has been as encouraging as Hibs’ has been disheartening.
But Williams is a shrewd judge, and if his team-mates take their lead from him they should squeeze through today. Only then will the real test of character come.
HIBERNIAN are seeking to reach successive Scottish Cup finals for the first time in 89 years as they face Falkirk at Hampden this afternoon.
The capital club endured a torrid time in last season’s showpiece, suffering a humiliating 5-1 defeat at the hands of great rivals Hearts in the first all-Edinburgh final since 1896.
However, Pat Fenlon’s men, evidently keen to atone for that 19 May horror-show, have responded admirably this season’, defeating Hearts and SPL rivals Aberdeen and Kilmarnock on their way to today’s semi-final.
Should they dispatch of Falkirk at the national stadium, Fenlon will have achieved a feat unsurpassed by any post-War Hibs boss – reaching two Scottish Cup finals in a row.
Alex Maley saw his side defeated 1-0 by Celtic at Hampden in 1923 watched by 82,000 supporters. The following season, he once against failed at the final hurdle, succumbing to a 2-0 defeat against Airdrieonians. No side outwith the Old Firm have finished runners-up in the Scottish Cup as often as Hibs, who last won it in 1902.