BECOMING only the eighth team from the second tier of Scottish football to reach the League Cup final in the 70 years of the tournament’s existence may not necessarily prove that Alan Stubbs’ Hibernian are a Premiership side in all but name.
But in deservedly overcoming St Johnstone in Saturday’s semi-final, claiming their third top-flight scalp of the campaign after wins over Aberdeen and Dundee United in previous rounds, Hibs certainly indicated there is real substance to the work Stubbs has done at the club.
They will approach next month’s final at Hampden with justifiable belief they are capable of becoming only the third team from outwith the top flight to lift the famous three-handled trophy, following East Fife and Raith Rovers in 1947-48 and 1994-95 respectively.
Promotion from the Championship remains the obvious and clear priority for Hibs this season, which Stubbs was keen to underline as he insisted tomorrow night’s league game at Morton carries more significance than either the victory over St Johnstone or their return to Tynecastle next Sunday to face Hearts in the last 16 of the Scottish Cup.
Nonetheless, genuine opportunities to win a piece of major domestic silverware have to be savoured whenever they come along, which is something Hibs’ longest-serving player Lewis Stevenson now appreciates perhaps more than anyone else in their dressing room.
The 28-year-old, who is closing in on his 300th appearance for the club, is the only member of Hibs’ last League Cup-winning side still on the playing staff. The full-back earned the Man of the Match award in that 5-1 final triumph over Kilmarnock nine years ago but admits both the occasion and that achievement passed him by in many ways.
“I wish I remembered it more,” said Stevenson, who also has runners-up medals from Hibs’ Scottish Cup final appearances of 2012 and 2013.
“I was young at the time and had only played a handful of games for the first team. I maybe didn’t take it in as much as I should have. I am sure if we win it again, I will soak in as much as I can on the day.
“Back in 2007, I thought we would get to a cup final every year but, of course, it doesn’t work like that. This will be my fourth cup final with Hibs, which is not bad going, but I’ve only won one of them and you certainly don’t want to remember the ones where you got beaten. You need to be in it to win it, so you have to make the most of it on the day.
“If we perform the way we can, we can give anyone a game, so we are looking forward to the final now.”
On a tense afternoon in Gorgie, Hibs generally had the edge over St Johnstone in terms of both conviction and quality. The Perth side, whose current winless run now stands at seven games stretching back to the start of December, made a sluggish start to the contest from which they never properly recovered.
They held a sense of grievance over Hibs’ opening goal from the penalty spot in the 29th minute, believing with some justification that Liam Henderson had dived theatrically as he moved beyond Chris Millar. It was also an injudicious challenge by the Saints’ midfielder, however, which made the referee’s decision understandable.
Jason Cummings sent Alan Mannus the wrong way to notch up his 18th goal of the season but Hibs’ lead lasted just four minutes.
St Johnstone’s equaliser found Hibs’ central defensive pairing of Paul Hanlon and Liam Fontaine, otherwise excellent on the day, wanting as Joe Shaughnessy directed a perfect header from David Wotherspoon’s cross beyond Mark Oxley.
The tie was firmly back in the balance but Saints were unable to gather any real momentum on the back of their goal and it was Hibs who continued to look the more threatening side in the second half.
Their 74th-minute winner came from the game’s outstanding player, John McGinn. A bundle of committed energy and enterprise throughout, the midfielder clipped a low left-foot shot past Mannus’ left hand from around 20 yards.
“I think we deserved it,” added Stevenson. “The conditions were hard but we played football the right way. We got the ball down, tried to play and were the better team.
“We were a good top-flight team the last time we played in a League Cup final and now we are a good Championship team. I don’t think there are many differences between the two. We are maybe not the biggest or strongest team around but everyone digs in and we have got that winning mentality just now. That is a massive thing, it is massive in these games.”