FROM one massive match to another for Ben Williams. After the agony of losing Sunday’s Scottish Cup final to Celtic, the Hibs goalkeeper must clear all negative thoughts from his mind as he prepares to marry his fiancée, Gemma, in Shropshire tomorrow.
In the month or so leading up to Sunday’s final, Williams allowed himself to envisage the romantic prospect of having the Scottish Cup sitting proudly at the top table on the day he tied the knot. The perfect end to what would have been a fairytale week, if you like.
Instead, his wedding day will serve as something as a pick-me-up for the 30-year-old Mancunian. “It’s been a disappointing start to my wedding week,” said Williams, alluding to Hibs’ 3-0 defeat by a ruthless Celtic side. “We’ve been looking forward to the wedding for a while, but obviously I’d rather have gone into it as a cup winner. It would have been really nice if I could have taken the Scottish Cup down to my wedding, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have a chance to fit in a stag do because we had the final to focus on, but I’d much rather be focusing on a final than a stag do.
“I’ll get married, go away on honeymoon, regroup and then start back at training in the third week in June, so it’s going to be a short summer. We’re having a week in the Seychelles, so that’s a chance to escape and get a bit of downtime. A week away and then back into the thick of things again.”
Despite having less than a month off, Williams certainly won’t view returning to work as any kind of slog. Having been on the periphery of big European nights during his time with Manchester United, the prospect of actually playing in continental competition for the first time in his career when Hibs start their Europa League campaign in mid-July is enough to ensure he will return north in a few weeks’ time with renewed enthusiasm. He is adamant that Hibs must make the most of their first venture into Europe for three years and make sure the early start back doesn’t count for nothing. “Going into Europe will give us additional excitement for coming back after our break,” he said. “There’s a lot of disappointment after the cup final, but we can look forward to Europe and hopefully that can help us get off to a good start in the SPL, like we did last season.
“We’ve now got to hopefully strengthen the squad, and look to come back and hit the ground running when we go into Europe. We can’t be using Europe just as a tune-up to the SPL season. It’s an added bonus for working so hard to reach a cup final, but it’s also a real opportunity to go and play against top European sides. We’ll want to progress as far as we can.”
While a sense of gloom lingers from the cup final, Williams sees plenty reason for optimism ahead of his second season in Edinburgh. While he knows some key men like Leigh Griffiths and Jorge Claros may have played their last game for the club, he is encouraged by the prospect of new arrivals and, particularly so, by the recent emergence of teenagers like Alex Harris, Jordon Forster, Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell. Reflecting on the campaign just finished, he said: “It’s been a mixed season. There’s a lot of positives to take out of it, though, particularly all the young players starting to come through.
“We set out to get out the top six and to get back into a cup final and back into Europe. We missed out on the top six, but we finished the season strongly and got to a cup final and into Europe. The young lads did very well in the final, as they have done pretty much since coming into the team for the semi-final. The future’s bright for those players if they maintain their consistency and keep playing games. That’s the important thing for them.”
As well as working alongside Hibs’ vibrant crop of youngsters, Williams is also relishing the prospect of playing in front of a group of supporters who went even further up in his estimation following their remarkable show of defiance at the end of the cup final. “As players, it was very humbling and fantastic to see all the fans stay behind and show their appreciation,” said Williams.
“We’re bitterly disappointed for all the fans and everyone involved with the club who had such a desire to win the Scottish Cup. The fans have been fantastic all the way through the cup run and it’s hard for them to take losing a second cup final on the bounce. I hope they saw that we gave our all but were just beaten by a better side.” Hibs’ strong start to Sunday’s final showed they certainly weren’t overawed by the occasion. In a game where Hibs’ generally competed well, Williams, who captained the side in James McPake’s absence, feels the key factor was simply that Celtic’s superior quality shone through. “We were probably unlucky that we came up against Celtic in the final because, had it been any other SPL side, I think we’d have had a pretty good chance of winning it,” he explained.
“It was bitterly disappointing. We worked really hard to get the final, beating SPL opposition all the way through, but we just found Celtic too tough on the day. We felt we had a realistic chance of winning it. We were in good form and had some belief and confidence about us but we just couldn’t get out noses in front, and Celtic were clinical in front of goal.
“We started brightly and created a couple of half chances. Eoin [Doyle] did well to get into the box, but I don’t think there’s much more he could have done with the header; Fraser [Forster] produced a great save. A couple of minutes later, they go up the park, get a great delivery and Hooper puts it away.”
Williams, along with defenders Paul Hanlon, Ryan McGivern and Alan Maybury, have all been questioned to varying degrees for their part in Celtic’s first two goals, both expertly scored by Gary Hooper following magnificent deliveries from the left from Anthony Stokes. While acknowledging that the goals didn’t look good from a Hibs point of view, the goalkeeper insisted that the quality produced by Hooper and Stokes would have made life difficult for any defence to deal with.
“It’s easy to look at it and assess and say people should do better in these situations, but you can’t take anything away from the quality of the delivery and the quality of the movement in the box,” he said. “Those two have a great partnership and know exactly what the other is doing. The crosses were too far out for me to deal with and Hooper’s movement was so good that he’s managed to get in between the defenders. We’re disappointed at the manner of the goals we conceded but situations like those are difficult for anyone to deal with. It was a case of Hooper being in the right place at the right time.
“The header [for the second goal] in particular was a great finish. From then on, it was always going to be an uphill task for us and we couldn’t get the goal back quickly enough, either at the end of the first half or the start of the second half, to give us a chance.”