JOHN Hughes has no qualms about playing this afternoon’s League Cup semi-final at Easter Road.
The Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager says he has been back a few times since he was sacked by Hibs and, while the choice of venue has caused consternation for Caley Thistle fans, he is hoping that his former loyalties will help the Highlanders recruit some temporary reinforcements.
“Who knows, with the Hibs connection through Russell [Latapy, his newly-appointed assistant manager] and myself, we might get some Hibs fans coming along to support two ex-Hibs players,” said Hughes. “That would be good to see – especially with us playing against Hearts. I’m quite sure they would want Inverness to win.
“I’ve got a few good Hibs mates who want to come along and I’m struggling to get enough tickets. But it might be the case that we see some more Hibs fans turning up to support us. Hopefully it happens.”
It was against the same opposition, at the same venue, at the same stage of the same competition last year, that the Caley Jags’ dream of reaching their first major cup final died. Hughes does not want to see history repeat itself.
“All I’m focusing on is preparing the team,” he said. “We’d play them in the back yard, we’d play them on the training pitch if we had to, with jumpers for goalposts. But we have to make sure we take this club into a cup final no matter where it is.”
Renewing old rivalries with Hearts is simply an added bonus. “Me being a Hibby gives it a bit of extra spice, but I don’t get carried away with that,” said Hughes. “That stuff was great when I was a player, wearing my heart on my sleeve and letting the Hearts fans know I was loyal to Hibs, but I’m nearly 50 now.
“First and foremost I’m the manager of Inverness. So I’d love to do it for the people of Inverness and the people at the club. We know what’s at stake. When Easter Road is full the atmosphere is fantastic, so hopefully that inspires us.”
The disparity in the size of the clubs’ core supports will only be magnified by the problems associated with a Sunday lunchtime kick-off and the fact that one set of supporters has to find its way from the Highlands to the central belt while the other has only to manoeuvre from one side of the capital to the other.
Being outnumbered in the stands is no encumbrance to success, though, according to Hughes. Delighted with the squad he inherited from Terry Butcher two months ago, he points to his second match in charge and the fact Inverness beat Hearts at Tynecastle as evidence that the large rival support will offer no intimidation.
This afternoon there will likely be more than 14,000 Hearts fans packed into Easter Road, while the ghosts of last year’s encounter will also be patrolling the park. “This club loves this kind of challenge. It will inspire us,” says Hughes.
Just as they were last term, the Highland side are favourites. Twelve months ago they were the top-six side, while Hearts were struggling. This season the gulf is even more apparent, with 32 points separating them. The pair have faced up twice this season and Inverness have claimed all six points so Hughes is indulging in mind games when he suggests his men are underdogs.
Recent form has offered him reason for caution, though. Only one win from their last seven suggests there are Inverness weaknesses which could be exploited. The stuttering form has been put down to injuries and suspensions but with a shot at silverware almost within their grasp, key players could return.
Last week, captain Richie Foran was described as having a 50-50 chance of featuring. Hughes says he needs to speak to the influential midfielder before making a final call.
“He’s an honest guy, he knows his own body and I don’t think he would jeopardise the team in any way. If he told me he was fit I would take him at his word and then we’d have to sit down and see whether we were going to start him or put him on the bench. The boys look up to him as a leader, so it would be a massive boost if he’s back.”
Last year the match ended in stalemate, when Andrew Shinnie’s opener was cancelled out by on-loan Liverpool forward Michael Ngoo. Once again Hearts have recruited a striker from down south – West Ham’s Paul McCallum – but Inverness have been told to focus on what they can influence rather than be haunted by the penalty shoot-out that ended last season’s cup run.
“You have to use any kind of tool at your disposal mentally,” says Hughes. “If it’s how much it hurt to lose last year, if it’s your girlfriend, your wife, your family, someone that you’ve lost – that’s a fantastic tool to use, but you have to control it. You have to be disciplined.
“Football’s not about being manic and running about like a lunatic. You have to be cool, calm, collected and composed. I’ve never seen anybody run faster than the football. That’s the message we try to bring to the boys.”