BEN WILLIAMS insists today’s Scottish Cup semi-final clash with Falkirk is “pay back” time as Pat Fenlon’s players bid to make up for the hurt and disappointment inflicted on everyone at Easter Road by their failure to clinch a top-six finish.
The Hibs goalkeeper admitted falling short of that target had left him and his team-mates feeling they had let far too many people down and insisted beating Falkirk to reach the Cup final for the second year in succession was the only way to make amends.
He said: “There is a definite element of repayment needed from the players to the fans and repayment to the coaching staff and everyone else who had put in the effort behind the scenes who we, as players, have probably let down by not reaching the top six and that’s something we have to put right in the cup.
“We need to make sure we give Falkirk the respect they deserve for being there, but also the footballing lesson that an SPL team should be providing.
“Most people will be expecting us to win but everyone knows that in football there are no formalities. We need to be positive and win the game. Falkirk have had some good results of late, they are a good team and they’ve got a new manager. There’s a lot of positives going for them and they shouldn’t be written off.
“We should be treating them with an element of respect but also looking to get the job done.”
While the Bairns go into today’s Hampden showdown on the back of four successive wins, Hibs have stuttered badly of late, losing three games on the spin but reserving their best performances – and results – for the cup in having already disposed of holders Hearts, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock.
The display at Rugby Park in which Leigh Griffiths scored a hat-trick was arguably the best Fenlon’s side has produced for some time and Williams agreed a repeat of that performance would help sets Hibs up for the final five league games of the season in which they’d be seeking to take seventh place. He said: “Our league form has been poor of late and it has cost us the top-six finish we wanted to achieve. We are looking to rectify that with a good performance to get us back into the final and then that creates momentum for the last five games to make sure we can finish seventh.
“There’s a lot of pride and I am sure monetary value to the club from where we finish in the league. But there’s value to the players. When I came here in the summer the club wanted to progress so we need to finish higher than we did last season with a lot more respect than we did last season.
“We need to be aiming to finish seventh because we feel as a group of players we should have been in the top six.”
Williams, however, confessed to being unable to pinpoint why Hibs’ recent form has been so unpredictable, or why they suffered the slump they did in the wake of their quarter-final win against Killie which many thought would kick start their season.
He said: “I don’t know why we played so well at Kilmarnock. Sometimes games go your way and we got fortunate with a couple of our goals. But if you look back at the good results we’ve had this season, the Celtic game here, the derbies against Hearts, Aberdeen at Easter Road, there’s been a real work-rate from the team, the closing down, the tempo.
“That’s been lacking in other games and it’s cost us. I think the main thing against Killie was the work ethic and that’s what we need to bring to today’s game.”
Eleven months on and the nightmare of last season’s final against Hearts still haunts everyone connected with Hibs and, Williams revealed, it’s been discussed by the players with skipper James McPake and his team-mates mulling it over but also hearing of the joy of winning from the likes of Scott Robertson, who was with Dundee United when they beat Ross County to lift the trophy.
He said: “Yes, there’s an added motivation among those who played in the final last year. James went through it and we’ve had numerous discussions this week and over the past few weeks of targets we want to set for the rest of the season.
“James has spoken in depth and truthfully about how it felt last year and he doesn’t want to go through that again. Obviously, the fans don’t want to go through it again nor do the club and the management staff. It wasn’t a case of James ‘spilling his guts,’ it was a case of sitting down and having a discussion, him saying ‘look this is how it feels to miss out, how it feels to get that close’. There’s other boys in there that have been close, Alan Maybury has been there, Scott won it with Dundee United, so it was a case of bringing different view points on how it feels to being that close to a cup final and winning it and being that close and missing out. It was valuable, sometimes I think you learn more from defeat than you do in winning games.”
Williams admitted that like a number of his team-mates today’s match was the biggest of his career so far, his only previous trip to Hampden being for a sponsors’ photo-shoot with the SPL’s other goalkeepers.
He said: “I’ve never been so close to something as big as this. I’ve had a minor run in the Carling Cup with Crewe, but nothing of this size and magnitude before. It’s quite comfortably the biggest game of my career with the pressure and the sense of what’s at stake. It’s a fantastic game to be involved in.
“I’ve been to Hampden only once before for a photo-shoot with the other goalies but I didn’t step onto the pitch. That’s going to be a first for me and I’m looking forward to it.”
Like every Hibs player Williams has been made well aware by fans he’s met on a daily basis of just what it would mean to them should Hibs finally end their 111-year wait to get their hands on the cup.
He said: “I’ve had a few people express their desire to win it and what they would be prepared to sacrifice to see that happen. It’s not printable, it would probably lead to a few divorces. But you are definitely aware of the real hunger amongst those fans to be winning the Scottish Cup.
“It means a helluva lot to everyone in Scottish football and for Hibs go to 111 years without lifting it is far too long.” Even reaching the final, however isn’t guaranteed with Falkirk having had recent experience of such an occasion themselves although Williams agreed it was unthinkable that Hibs should suffer two successive Hampden nightmares.
He said: “It depends on the day. It can happen in football. There are elements that contribute towards it, decisions, people getting sent off, things like that. It would be incredibly disappointing to the club to get that close to winning the Scottish Cup and missing out on both occasions.
“We are really looking to win the cup this season and we don’t care who it is against. If we get past Falkirk and we meet Celtic we will be approaching it the same as we would any other team. We will be looking to win, not just roll over and hand the cup over to someone else.”