Big Irishman’s heroics for Hibs in win over United vindicate Stubbs’ decision to throw goalkeeper into semi-final showdown
The seeds of this storied Hibernian win were planted a few weeks ago in the Highlands when Mark Oxley’s contact lens was trodden into the turf.
Despite his protests at the time, Alan Stubbs didn’t seriously believe the goalkeeper’s yellow card for time-wasting in the quarter-final replay against Inverness – significant because it meant Oxley incurred a Scottish Cup suspension – would be rescinded.
Work had to begin on finding a replacement, one at least able to act as a substitute goalkeeper at Hampden Park in the forthcoming semi-final. But rather than begin the search the next day, it began on the journey back from Inverness.
“We obviously knew Ox was going to be suspended after the Inverness game,” explained Stubbs. “Straightaway after that game on the bus down from Inverness we spoke to George Craig, our head of football operations, and said: ‘we need another goalkeeper in’.”
The board sanctioned making money available. “I rang Graeme Mathie, our head of recruitment, and said we need to be on the look out for a keeper,” recalled Stubbs. “He gave me some options, and we brought Conrad up [from Leicester City].”
What were Stubbs’ first impressions when he saw Conrad Logan’s figure fill the frame of his office door? “My first impression was that we had to try and get him in decent shape,” he said. Whether they managed to do this is a moot question.
But it mattered not. Logan was inspirational, using his vast bulk to block three one-on-ones. The last of these, a fine stop from Henri Anier, was the signal for a round of applause that rippled through the Hibs support and sent tingles down the spine. It was as if the game was won then. Nothing, it seemed, was going to ruin Logan’s day.
As soon as he was spotted ambling towards his goal before kick-off, it seemed certain he would have a big say in what happened. Few could miss him because he looked so unusually normal. Normal, that is, if he was sitting in the stands watching. Among svelte professional footballers, however, let’s just say he stood out.
Stubbs’ brave decision would either pay off or explode in his face. He knew he risked being made to look a fool had Logan, without a first-team outing since 2014, bombed. Whatever the outcome, Logan seemed bound to feature in the headlines.
While Jason Cummings had a ballsy attempt at stealing the limelight from Logan, he also had to bow, eventually, to the Irish keeper. It was something the striker seemed to remember even amid his own burst of redemptive joy at the end.
Cummings wheeled back as he headed towards the Hibs fans to celebrate his penalty shoot-out winner and joined the throng jumping all over Logan instead. It was notable that several Hibs players broke away to shake the hands of the dejected Dundee United players.
John McGinn and Lewis Stevenson were first to remember their beaten opponents, manager Stubbs too. It was the kind of class no one could pretend there had been a lot of during the game itself, which was either going to go one of two ways given the fragile state of both teams: a multi-goal, error-strewn thriller or mostly dour stalemate. Sadly, we got the latter, although the first 60 minutes were enjoyable in the way a Marx Brothers film is enjoyable. There was slapstick of the sort you could not make up. When Cummings planted the ball on the spot after Coll Donaldson’s handball, the sensible thing to have done would be to do what he did against Falkirk last midweek: opt for substance over style and rifle the ball into the net.
But this is Jason Cummings. “Semi-finals and finals take a certain type of approach,” said Stubbs, more calmly than Cummings deserved afterwards. “If it has gone in we are all waxing lyrical about it and how cool, calm and classy it is. If it doesn’t then you look stupid.”
It’s fair to say Cummings’ tribute to Panenka 40 years on from the final of the 1976 European Championship did not go to plan. It was potentially ruinous to Hibs’ chances because while it dismayed their fans – loud jeers directed at Cummings filled the arena – such a ridiculous miss also imbued a sense of indignation in their opponents, as well as relief. ‘Who the hell does Cummings think he is to try that against us?’
But not even when handed such motivation does it mean a team as poor as United will be transformed. Several clearly decent players do not make a good team. While there’s no question United had the better chances, all beaten away by Logan, they still looked a rum bunch.
At no time was this rottenness so apparent as when, for the second game in a week, there was insurrection in the ranks involving a player walking off. On this occasion it was Donaldson who limped to the sideline to leave United with ten men, though not having already picked the ball up, à la Gavin Gunning.
Mixu Paatelainen expressed his fury at the player, who appeared to give back as good as he got. The Finn’s complaint was that he hadn’t sought treatment on the pitch, providing enough time to bring replacement Guy Demel on.
But there was more to be upset about in the manner of their defeat. Having reached the stage of penalty kicks, United knew they had every bit as much chance to reach the final as Hibs.
But neither Blair Spittal nor Billy Mckay’s penalty was convincing enough. It was as if they, too, had bought into the legend of Conrad Logan.