Football supporters are all too often dismissed as being too prone to knee-jerk reactions. Often they are characterised as hard to please. They are criticised for failure to see the bigger picture.
But on Wednesday evening Hibs supporters proved that this is not always the case. They showed that so long as there is evidence of both application and verve, they are prepared to forgive other faults. They are also willing to overlook the normally considerable matter of a defeat.
Hibs’ failure to overcome Dundee United after a six-goal thriller was not just any old defeat either. It was one in which they were frustrated in an attempt to reach the last four of the League Cup. The loss was after penalties. It was a setback that should have stung.
And it did, no question. According to midfielder Scott Robertson, the players were downcast in the dressing room afterwards. “People say you can take positives out of it and stuff – but the main positive would be being in the semi-final,” he said.
But each defeat has to be taken in context. There are varying degrees of pain. A year ago yesterday, Hibs supporters suffered at the extreme end of the scale after a defeat at the same stage of the same tournament. It was a loss that cut them to the core.
Hearts, of course, were the ones who dealt out this punishment, absorbing Hibs’ pressure and scoring the decisive goal through a stunning effort by Ryan Stevenson. Jeers filled the stadium at the end. Pat Fenlon, the then Hibs manager, observed the fractious scene and tendered his resignation two days later – a year ago tomorrow.
“Ironically, I think that was one of our best performances that season – we could just not score,” recalled Robertson, 12 months on. “We hit the post, I hit the bar and there were wonder saves and one-on-one misses.
“It was ridiculous. It was bad luck that night again with another wonder strike in a derby. The fans were right to vent their anger. But, ironically, it was one of our best performances of the season.”
A lot has changed since then. But it wasn’t as if things would get instantly better. Under Terry Butcher, they got worse. Which is why Hibs were taking on United as a lower division side on Wednesday. And it is why not too many were surprised when the Tannadice side emerged as victors. They were, after all, favourites. But Hibs had given themselves every chance to win the tie by getting back on level terms three times and then coming just one converted penalty away from winning the tie.
Sadly for Alan Stubbs’ side, Matthew Kennedy’s effort from the spot was saved. After Conor Townsend scored with his kick for Dundee United, Radoslaw Cierzniak’s save from David Gray’s penalty sealed United’s triumph.
And yet, in a striking contrast to the reaction after the defeat by Hearts a year ago, when some supporters quickly gathered outside the stadium and called for Fenlon’s head, the fans on this occasion applauded the Hibs players from the park.
Robertson noted how differently they were treated on this occasion. It wasn’t only Fenlon and chairman Rod Petrie who were abused last year, some of the players were, too. It was a different story on Wednesday, however.
“The fans were happy with our effort and performance level because I don’t think you could have asked much more from any of the players that stepped out on the pitch,” said Robertson, who rued that the playing philosophy imposed by Stubbs was not in place last season, when Hibs endured such a poor run that culminated in relegation.
“Looking at the team we have now and the way we are playing if we had that philosophy last season then I really do not think we would be in the position we are in now,” he said. “It is easy to say that, of course,” he added. “But when you are playing against a team like United and matching them – probably more than matching them actually – then it shows how far we have come in a short space of time.”
He realises it will take more than a decent showing in a League Cup quarter-final to make things up to the long-suffering supporters. Although Hibs have been beaten only once in their last seven games, they are faced with a run of matches that will put to the test Stubbs’ post-match assertion that Hibs have now put their “foot to the pedal”.
The Easter Road side have a break this weekend due to the Scottish Cup but are then expected to build on the recent momentum, starting with a trip to face bottom side Cowdenbeath a week tomorrow.
“We know ourselves but I think we have to prove to people how good we can be – and do it more consistently,” accepted Robertson. “But our last two performances and the quality of opposition we have been playing against shows what we are capable of. It just needs to be on a more consistent basis.”