At the end of each of their last two seasons Hibernian have had a Scottish Cup final to look forward to – one of them dubbed the match of the millennium
Although they were knocked out of this season’s Scottish Cup as long ago as February, Terry Butcher’s side have managed to ensure they face another ‘cup final’ this weekend against Kilmarnock. However, this is one they had desperately hoped not to have to play.
According to goalkeeper Ben Williams, it could be deemed more significant than even the Scottish Cup final in terms of the possible repercussions. Williams will hope that Hibs pay heed to the threat of cut-backs putting staff jobs at risk and perform better than they did in both their last two Hampden showpieces, the first of which finished in a crushing 5-1 defeat to Hearts, their nearest rivals. While there was of course much on the line then, this forthcoming match against Kilmarnock, who are themselves in peril of finishing in 11th place, is one Hibs simply cannot afford to lose.
“Everything is at stake – the livelihoods of players and staff at the club, everything,” said Williams. “No one knows what ramifications a play-off spot and a possible relegation will have and we don’t want it to come to that. And that is why everyone will be gathered round and focused on what we are striving to do.”
“The cup final is what it is,” he added. “It is the Scottish Cup and it has been well documented that Hibs have not won it in a long time. There is a piece of silverware at the end of it. If we win on Saturday, then it is all put to bed. If we are involved in a play-off and a possible relegation then that has a whole different meaning to it.”
Defeat in Dingwall on Tuesday meant it was a black night near the Black Isle for Hibs, who have picked up only one point from four bottom-six fixtures. As Williams pondered this weekend’s game against Kilmarnock, using phrases such as “one last chance”, it was hard not to recall team-mate James Collins’ remarks following defeat to Aberdeen in April prior to the split.
The striker was almost dismissive of the possibility that Hibs might be drawn into the relegation play-off mix. At the time this seemed foolhardy and perhaps, even, slightly delusional. After all, they had won only twice since New Year and were clearly struggling to arrest a slide. Four weeks and four matches later, this bleak statistic remains unchanged. They are where Collins said they would not be and Hibs now face a last-match shoot-out at a ground – their own – where they have tasted victory just four times in the league this season.
Although Butcher’s side had the chance to secure their top-flight status with victory against Ross County, it was their opponents who earned this reward for themselves courtesy of Richard Brittain’s penalty strike in the second half. Hibs now move on anxiously to this Saturday’s clash with Kilmarnock knowing they have plenty of work still left to accomplish. Williams remarked that there is little more that the manager can do. It is now down to the players. “The manager has covered every angle he possibly can now,” Williams accepted.
Although Butcher’s comments on Tuesday were typically bullish and upbeat, they actually bore little relation to how he looked. Perhaps for the first time since Hibs began this slide – which some date back to the loss of a late goal against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in January – Butcher’s demeanour could be described as slightly haunted.
It might have been that this defeat in the Highlands, where he lived so happily while manager of Inverness, was particularly painful to accept, especially given what it signified. He might also have been knocked momentarily sideways by the ill fortune that is bedevilling Hibs at present. Somehow the ball stayed out despite numerous chances – several of them on the edge of the six-yard box – on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the players know they have already had numerous opportunities stretching back weeks to pull themselves clear from danger.
Is Williams surprised it has come to this, given remarks, from others as well as Collins, that suggested Hibs were confident about saving themselves long before it reached such a nerve-jangling finale?
“No, that’s football,” he said. “In all the leagues throughout Scotland and England there are probably teams who got relegated on the last day after thinking it would not be them, and they would not be in that situation. But we have been given chances and we’ve not taken them. Now, ultimately, we’ve got one more chance on Saturday that we have to take.” Like Butcher, Williams has called on supporters to turn up in force on Saturday and create the kind of atmosphere that can help inhibit Kilmarnock, who are themselves teetering on the edge. But he is aware that the players need to provide encouragement from the early stages.
“It works both ways,” he said. “We have to give the crowd something to shout about and we need them to support us. Listen, the supporters have been fantastic and they follow us through thick and thin, and it is very thin at the moment. But on Saturday we need a real full house and a hostile environment for Killie to come into and so we can try and take everything we can from the game.”
“Obviously there will be tension,” he added. “As players, you play in big games and you have to handle tension and you have to perform. It is another game, but it is a cup final. It is our most important game of the season.”