Aidan Smith: Sun sets on Leith cup dreams

Hibs lost out in the Scottish Cup final. Picture: TSPL
Hibs lost out in the Scottish Cup final. Picture: TSPL
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I SHOULD have known the 2013 Scottish Cup final wasn’t going to work out.

There I was at 20 to three, filming my son singing Sunshine on Leith, him having got over his initial shyness and really belting it out, me zooming in for a close-up then out again for a crowd panorama and reckoning I had a late entry for the Palme d’Or (sports factual category) right there on my phone, when ... “Excuse me boys!” A large woman’s quest to find her seat needed everyone in the row to breathe in. It would be unkind to say she blotted out the sun but she did halt the Sunshine. There was so much optimism in the game’s opening eight minutes, just as there had been in the song’s early verses. Then a powerfully-built Celtic turned up, demanding entry. “Excuse me boys!” went Gary Hooper, and Hibs’ defence meekly parted.

So, another Hampden disappointment followed by an inquest along usual lines, yes? Actually, no. Hibs have had so much practice at this – losing finals – that they know when to expect a kicking. Last year everyone got it: manager, players, fans (for leaving early). This time they hope for kinder words. Granted there were some, but also two tabloid opinion pieces which questioned whether the club were really serious about wanting to end the hoodoo. In other words, were Hibs sports factual – or sports fiction?

“Tears but no blood and sweat,” went one headline, while the other predicted: “Hibs face long wait for glory if getting cuffed by the champions is deemed a decent performance.” The players were chastised for their performance and reaction and Pat Fenlon got flak, too. The team had talked themselves up pre-match, how they were unrecognisable from 12 months before and full of leaders. So where was the evidence? They’d simply rolled over. There was no real hunger. They’d “failed to commit fully to the cause” and “simply weren’t willing to go above and beyond”. Post-match, the bubble had burst, not so the inflated opinions. In interviews the players were “quite content” with having avoided another 5-1; indeed they viewed their afternoon’s work as a “triumph”.

Fenlon responded in his usual way, claiming Hibs don’t get enough respect. Most of the club’s fans appreciated there had been progress, but this had been “ignored by the wider audience”. So who’s right? Everyone and no one. All players are media-trained, and anodyne, repetitive, upbeat, non-critical piffle usually results. No one at Hibs thought they could win without help from an off-colour or complacent Celtic. The run to this final – three Premier teams defeated, a 3-0 semi deficit overcome – is evidence of progress but Fenlon remains a cautious manager. At his most insistent on the respect issue, he hints at a Celtic-style conspiracy theory: that Hibs flopping in the cup yet again makes good copy. Well, lots of neutrals would like to see them winning it at last. But that “wider audience” does include a few hard-nosed football people who can’t help sniggering when we over-romanticise our club and its history, claiming Arthur Conan Doyle for the celebrity supporters’ XI alongside John Leslie and Fish.

Is there such a thing as a Hibee state of mind and is it counter-conducive to cup success? Absolutely yes and possibly. Would Hibs accept an ugly victory? Some would wince if it came via a sclaff, as in Dundee United’s eventual triumph in 1994 – and, still too much in love with Turnbull’s Tornadoes, might admit they were secretly relieved when the team of eight loan players didn’t do it last year. I know because I was one of them – right up until Eoin Doyle’s timid header last Sunday, our first and last chance. Now I don’t care how the bloody thing is won. A five-man forward line of great non-scoring strikers, Jim Blair, Bobby Hutchinson, Ally Scott, Eduardo Hurtado and Eoin Toil? Sure.

But the big issue of these post-defeat days isn’t the fans’ state of mind regarding flair, it’s whether Rod Petrie will change his state of mind on transfer fees. He doesn’t like paying them, didn’t want to fork out £150,000 for Leigh Griffiths in January, won’t be inclined to splash more on the player now. But just think where Hibs will be without him next season – nowhere near Hampden, that’s for sure.