HIBERNIAN captain James McPake came within touching distance of the Scottish Cup at Hampden yesterday and admitted he remains both haunted and motivated by his failure to get his hands on the trophy last May.
A notionally favourable last-four draw against First Division outsiders Falkirk has given Hibs an ideal opportunity to reach a second successive final and once more attempt to lay to rest Scottish football’s most notable hoodoo.
Having suffered the trauma of losing 5-1 to city rivals Hearts in last season’s Hampden showpiece, McPake is eager to seize the chance of making amends as soon as possible.
“The abiding memory of that day for me is not lifting the cup,” said McPake. “That’s what I was thinking about before the game, it’s what you do when you are captain of a team going into a final.
“I’d picture myself doing it. I’ve seen famous captains lifting the cup on TV, there are photos of them doing it here at Hampden, and it’s a dream of mine to do it. We are down to four teams now, so it’s another great chance for us.
“When you look at the other teams in the draw, Celtic and Dundee United, then before it was made we would have wanted to get Falkirk.
“But it will be a tough tie. They’re going to be up for it as it’s massive for them. It doesn’t really matter what league you’re in when it comes to a one-off cup tie.
“We’ve seen it happen before. If you think it’s going to be easy, it comes back to bite you, so we’ll be focused on the tie.
“I could never have imagined, after what happened last season, we’d have a chance to rectify it so quickly. It’s maybe only now that the Hearts defeat will come in handy for us. That’s probably the only good thing to come out of it, the experience of actually getting there.
“There are a few boys still in the dressing room who had to go through it and this is another chance to try and end the 111-year hoodoo.
“Forgetting about last year, it’s been too long since Hibs won this competition and we’re all desperate to do it. We wanted to do it for the fans last year, but it wasn’t to be. I think we’ve shown it’s behind us now by the way we’ve played this season. We’re back at Hampden again and it’s a different football club to last season. The way it’s run, the way we work, the place is totally different. So I don’t think that would happen again. The Hibs fans deserve to see their team win the Scottish Cup. People keep ramming the record down our throats but it’s up to us to turn it around.”
The influence of Leigh Griffiths, who hat-trick in Sunday’s 4-2 quarter-final win at Kilmarnock took his goal tally for the season to 22, will be crucial to Hibs’ hopes of going all the way this season.
McPake believes the off-field controversies which the on-loan Wolves striker has been embroiled in should not be allowed to overshadow his talent on the pitch. “I’ve known Leigh since he was 15 at Livingston,” said McPake. “Watching him play now, I can see a real maturity in his game, even if he might not have it away from the park. Seriously, he’s not a problem at Hibs. Ask anyone who has worked with him, he doesn’t cause anyone bother. He’s always in, he works hard, he trains hard. He’s got a bad reputation but people forget he’s still only a kid at 22.
“I’ve never really had to help him. I speak to Leigh just as I do any player as captain. He’s had problems with Twitter and stuff like that but it has never affected him or his football. He’s always the best player in training and the best player in our games. In my opinion, he’s the best striker in the SPL right now.
“People might laugh at me when I say that, but he’s the joint-top goalscorer and, against Kilmarnock, he was unplayable. Teams are starting to look scared of him. They don’t want to go near him. I rate him up there with the likes of Gary Hooper and Jonny Russell, without a doubt. I’ve played with a lot of good players and he’s up there with any of them, technically. He strikes the ball better than anyone I’ve seen and he’s a top player. Even as a kid at Livingston, he wasn’t a problem. He was maybe a bit cheekier back then, he would talk back to you. But if you tell him something, he listens, and that’s all you can ask. Would you take away that gallus, fiery side he’s got? I don’t think you would.
“If he caused problems around the club, you might, but he doesn’t. When he scored the penalty on Sunday, I wanted him to celebrate by himself away from the team. He’s a diehard Hibs fan and he was right in front of the away support. He loves nothing better than scoring goals for this club and I wanted him to have a moment. If he wasn’t playing for us, he’d have been in that section behind the goal. But he was scared. He’d been told after his second goal, he’d get booked if he celebrated like that again. So maybe he was being like me for a change and being sensible.
“Against Dundee United last week was the best I’ve ever seen him play. He’s not the biggest and he’s up there on his own but he was taking the ball in and linking the play. We can play Leigh up there and he can do everything a target man does. On form, he should be in the Scotland squad. I just hope the stuff that follows him around off the park doesn’t prevent him playing for Scotland.
“That would be unfair, but it might. It would be the only thing keeping him out of the squad. I don’t see many Scottish boys as good as him. He’s at the right age and I’m sure they’re looking at him. I think he’ll go on and get a lot of caps for his country.”