Ben Williams today admitted there will be no room for passengers as Hibs team coach rolls into Hampden on Sunday, the Easter Road goalkeeper conceding each and every one of Pat Fenlon’s players will have to be at the top of their game if they are to wrest the Scottish Cup from the clutches of Celtic.
But while not underplaying the task which lies ahead, Williams believes there is a quiet confidence exuding from the Easter Road squad, a self-belief which has been fuelled over the course of the past few weeks with an unbeaten run of six matches which culminated in three straight wins over Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee.
Those victories may have come against sides which, like Hibs, had ended up in the lower half of the SPL table, but they provide a backdrop to Sunday’s showpiece match at Hampden, which is in stark contrast to last season’s final when the Easter Road outfit prepared to face up to arch-rivals Hearts having secured their place in the top flight only on the penultimate day of the season.
Although Fenlon and his players were bitterly disappointed not to claim a top-six finish this time round, they did achieve their readjusted goal of finishing top of the bottom six as, after a mid-season dip, they appear to be hitting form again just at the right time, having negotiated the post-split fixtures without defeat for the first time.
Williams agrees, saying: “When I spoke to the manager last summer he was keen to emphasise this was a work in progress. I think we maybe hit the heights a little bit too early in the season and could not maintain it. But we have shown post-split that we are a good side and when we get everything right, we can score goals and defend well.
“We spoke in the month about trying to create some momentum going into the final, that it would be really important to do so as we’d be facing a brilliant side in Celtic. They have quality players so we are under no illusions it’s going to be a tough game and that, to a man, we need to be at our best.
“To do that we have to create confidence and momentum within the squad and I think we have done that. I think the build-up to this weekend has been as good as we could have wished for. Six unbeaten and three straight wins in our last three matches gives you confidence.
“We had a wee blip when we conceded three soft goals against St Mirren, but since then we have not looked back. It’s important to take these qualities into the final because we are going to need everyone to be at the top of his game.
“We are going in as the underdogs, people expect Celtic to comfortably win the cup so it’s up to us to make sure that’s not the case.”
Hibs’ 111-year wait to get their hands on the trophy has, as everyone knows, been one of the customary talking points of every Scottish Cup campaign for decades. This year has been no different, particularly so as it has come against the backdrop of last season’s humiliation at the hands of Hearts.
Williams, of course, wasn’t part of that debacle, but that doesn’t diminish the desire to bring that hoodoo to an end once and for all. The former Manchester United trainee said: “We have spoken in depth about the length of time this club has gone without winning that cup, it’s far too long.
“Before the season started we wanted to finish top six, to get back to the cup final and qualify for Europe. We didn’t make top six, but by hook or by crook, we have done everything else we wanted to do.”
Now, though, it’s a case of defying the odds, Williams believing Fenlon’s players can learn from their semi-final against Falkirk which almost ensured he’d today be talking about holiday destinations rather than another Hampden showdown. Already three goals down in a devastating opening half-hour, Williams arguably produced the pivotal moment minutes before the interval as he prevented Bairns striker Lyle Taylor making it four.
The rest, as they say, is history, Fenlon’s players staging a jaw-dropping comeback for Leigh Griffiths to secure a memorable 4-3 win although Williams had, again, to defy Taylor in the dying seconds to avoid the trauma of a penalty shoot-out.
A spot-kick hero against Aberdeen earlier in the competition, saving from Dons hitman Niall McGinn to ensure Gary Deegan’s wonder goal separated the sides at the final whistle, Williams said: “I think we are now in a similar position as Falkirk found themselves against us. We are the underdogs but we have nothing to lose.
“We have to work incredibly hard and see what we can take from the game. It’s a bit similar to the FA Cup final. Wigan beating Manchester City shows there are no formalities in football if you are willing to put the hard work in. And to be fair to Falkirk, they did that. We were expecting them to come out of the traps, but we were probably at fault. We were a little bit sloppy and I was already disappointed to have conceded three. Had it gone to four before half-time who knows, but I have spoken to a few fans who have said that once I made that save it was the turning point in the game.
“We showed tremendous character to come back, to create enough chances to have won the game in normal time let along extra-time. The save from Taylor at the death was just an instinctive block. It was great to get the plaudits, but I was just doing my job.
“However, we are going to have to show the same character again on Sunday, we have to make sure the first-half performance we turned in against Falkirk doesn’t happen again. But I think we have acquitted ourselves quite well against Celtic in our three games this season. We’ve drawn one, won one and lost one which was the only match in which we did not get up to standard or get a tempo going. However, we know what needs to be done and I am sure the manager will make sure we do it.”
While Hibs fans all around the world may be dreaming of finally enjoying some Scottish Cup glory, Williams insisted that while it was hard to resist such an indulgence, he and his team-mates had to dismiss the romantics and deal with reality.
He said: “You can’t really think about it and dwell on it too much. Don’t get me wrong, if we win it would be fantastic, amazing for the whole city, for the club, everyone involved, the coaches, the chairman, the directors, the players, all who work behind the scenes and, of course, the fans.
“Yes, it has been spoken about, that as a squad our names would go down in history but if that is to happen we have to put in the fundamental work, that’s going to be the most important when we turn up on the day.”
That said, there are those who say this could just be Hibs’ year, a whisper of which Williams is aware. He said: “I would love that to be the case, I really would. A lot of people have made it very clear how much this cup means. There’s a huge thing made about the club having not won it for all those years.
“But someone also pointed out that the last time we won it there was an Irishman in charge, we wore bottle green and we played Celtic in the final. Those omens will hopefully stand us in good stead this time round because this club more than deserves it.”