Just over a decade ago, when Dundee United were being touted for relegation, they were consoled and motivated by a run in the Scottish Cup. Back then they upset the odds to win the semi-final and, according to those involved, it helped save their season, inspiring them to overhaul the nine-point gap enjoyed by the team who ultimately dropped down.
Back then it was Hibernian they defeated in the last four at Hampden. “Was it? That’s interesting,” says Mixu Paatelainen, the man charged with leading the Tannadice side to the national stadium this time, where they will face the same team at the same stage of the tournament, still dreaming of pegging back clubs who are well within that nine-point limit in the league. They would love to go one better than their predecessors, who went on to lose the cup final to Celtic, but history has given the United manager something to chew on.
But would he currently accept the same outcome engineered by the Class of 2004-05? Would he settle for safety but missing out on silverware? The eyebrows that had risen in interest a few moments earlier, crinkle as the brow furrows.
“You have to remember I am a greedy striker,” he finally says with a smile. “I would like both.” The Finn may have to settle for second best at times but he never intentionally aims for it.
“But, look, you get what you deserve. It has been a long season and if we get relegated we totally deserve it and if we win the cup we totally deserve it. But I think our players quietly believe in themselves and I think they can do it.”
He believes there was a dearth of mental toughness and determination in the dressing room when he and his coaching staff took over but has seen that morph into something more steely and confident in recent times, with performances that have helped grind out points and reduced the gap on the teams above them to something more manageable.
Midfielder John Rankin, who had previously accused some of his colleagues of downing tools, agrees, insisting the team Hibs face on Saturday will be different, in terms of personnel and mentally, from the team they turned over 3-0 in the League Cup earlier this season.
“From that night at Easter Road, there might only be something like two or three players who are still here and will be involved from the side which started that game. Plus the manager was only in a couple a weeks before that and we hadn’t had a lot of games under him so it’s completely different now.”
“Every match is different,” adds his gaffer. “Hibs were the far better team that night but we have improved since those days, quite immensely. I think it will be an evenly balanced match.”
Paatelainen has been to cup finals in Finland, England and Scotland but has only one winners’ medal. “That was great but it was very early doors in my career. I was a youngster and we won after a penalty shootout and I managed to score one which was great. But I haven’t been as successful as I would have liked.”
Rankin has his own memories, of losing to St Johnstone in the 2014 Scottish Cup final and then to Celtic in last year’s League Cup final. “I don’t think we froze. You could dissect it into different parts. We did have chances but we didn’t capitalise,” he states matter-of-factly.
But if United have suffered in the cups, it is nothing compared to the 114-year wait Hibs have had since they last lifted the Scottish Cup. Both Paatelainen and Rankin have had spells at the Easter Road club and know all about the legend of the hoodoo. “I think that from the fans’ point of view they would love to win the Scottish Cup,” says the midfielder. “I remember my first pre-season being asked if this could be Hibs’ year to win the Scottish Cup? I thought to myself ‘no pressure then!’
“When you get to the latter stages of a cup competition, you do begin to think ‘this could be our year’ but that’s no different to any other club. It’s just with Hibs there’s that extra pressure coming from places like the media.”
“I think it does play in their head,” says Paatelainen. “When I played at Hibs, I was aware of it and before a match I would think about it. During the game it is out of your mind and you concentrate on the game but I am sure that it is in the Hibs players’ minds now. Everybody mentions it. It is always ‘this year, this year, this year’. As always people are different and some will be motivated and want to be one of the players who breaks that hoodoo, others will crumble.”
Spending next term in the Premiership is the ultimate goal of both clubs. But, still the silverware shimmers and dazzles.
“I’m desperate to stay up. I don’t want relegation on my CV, says Rankin. “As a professional, I don’t think you can choose between [securing top flight safety and winning the Scottish Cup] so I will just give it my lot and see where it takes me. At this moment, I want to achieve those two things. But all I want is to look around the dressing room at the end of the season, and know that we gave everything.”