Aidan Smith: Underwhelming Hibs looked to have been over-praised as St Johnstone reign

Seven years ago, on the eve of his greatest day as a fan, Stuart Cosgrove bid me farewell after our chat about football, music and dearly-departed dads with a bottle of beer. “Commemorative cup final limited edition,” read the label, emblazoned with the St Johnstone crest.

Kevin Nisbet and Hibs cut a dash pre-match but not in the first half
Kevin Nisbet and Hibs cut a dash pre-match but not in the first half
Kevin Nisbet and Hibs cut a dash pre-match but not in the first half

I didn’t drink the Saintees ale when the Off the Ball funster’s team hoisted the old trophy, nor in celebration of my greatest day as a fan two years later. But I popped it into the fridge on Friday in readiness for a moment neither of us could have predicted would come round quite so soon – the chance to triumph again and almost, nearly, get to declare the holey pail a semi-habit.

“I’ve never known a final with less animus – a credit to both clubs,” messaged Cosgrove, and then we signed off with the biggest and most screamingly outrageous fib that supporters will ever utter: “May the best team win.”

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Animus? Maybe I would want to see some out on the Hampden pitch. The strangest of seasons had put Hibernian in the strangest of positions. They were favourites. They were no longer the team fans of other clubs wanted to win. They were no longer the doomed romantics self-dramatising about being the guys who never, ever succeed. Drat, drat and triple drat.

Serenity had descended on Easter Road since 2016, a happy and relaxed air. But you don’t win things with a forward line of Relaxed, Happy and Serene, as had been proved this season. Martin Boyle Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet get the pundits drooling for sure. The opinions of Callum Davidson’s mean and moody defence are not known, but the Hibs trio had not scored against St Johnstone all campaign long. Surely one of them needed to have the game of his life just like Anthony Stokes five years ago.

There was no third-minute goal from any of them, nothing like. Boyle fresh-aired and was reluctant to take on Callum Booth, in contrast to a dangerous run from Glenn Middleton. Doidge couldn’t gather a straightforward through-ball and wasn’t pressuring while Nisbet was anonymous.

Pre-match, mooching about the pitch, St Johnstone were in tracksuits, which seemed to sum up their unassuming nature, while Hibs were in natty blazers and skinny breeks which they must have hoped wouldn’t be made to appear presumptuous, like Liverpool’s white Wembley suits.

Boyle briefly came alive and threw over some decent crosses but the winger was dreadfully weak in a challenge which led to the breakthrough. From that moment there was huge peril. David Wotherspoon casually arced a ball to the far post and - the League Cup semi failure had warned Hibs about this – Shaun Rooney’s big shiny napper connected for a near replica of his goal in January.

St Johnstone were sharper, their first touches better and the players ever-ready for those little controlled explosions of activity whenever Hibs ceded possession by running straight into that redoubtable defensive wall. All of a sudden - too quickly for Hibs - the first half was over and the Perth team were dreaming of a fantastic cup double.

Football is opening back up but not yet at Hampden. This cup would be won without the great, sweaty communal gathering of Hibbies in 2016 and Saintees in 2014. “Where will you be watching?” fans wondered on Twitter. “We’ve hired a gazebo,” declared a Hibby, which may not have been a joke and was immediately followed by “Tamsons”, one of the most unpretentious pubs in the entire fitba firmament.

Where would Prince William be watching? When it was revealed, as part of his Scottish fortnight, that he’d be watching in a bar with emergency responders Tamsons might have been revving up the pie-warmer, but given that HRH is the Earl of Strathearn when he’s in Scotland maybe it was more likely to be a St Johnstone-favouring howff, any one of which must have been jumping as much as social distancing would allow.

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It seems to be damning Saints with faint praise to say that the sum is greater than the parts; better to say they’re a proper, honest team and brilliantly coached, with only Wotherspoon’s shimmies capable of being deemed frills.

Hibs have plenty of frills but virtually none of them were showing. Boyle – disappointing in Hibs first two semis of the season – wasn’t giving the impression he was going to seize the day and with Nisbet not looking like he was ready to embrace the Hampden experience either, the team from Leith seemed over-praised.

None of those so excitably discussed or with suitors hovering was able to effect the final. St Johnstone had Hibs spooked and exactly where they wanted them: pushing forward, growing ever more desperate, and vulnerable to the lightning breaks led by Middleton who was set to confirm St Johnstone’s triumph from the penalty spot but Matt Macey produced an exceptional save.

The famous banner from 2016 – Time for heroes” – had been revived but little else from that day. Boyle’s miserable afternoon was capped with a yellow card for diving. The Saintees’ back-three – Jason Kerr, Jamie McCart, Liam Gordon – hadn’t allowed him a peep all game and Hibbies in Tamsons and everywhere else must have yearned for the invention of Scott Allan who was sat in the stand, unable to take part after the second half of his season was spent on loan in the Highlands.

Ah well. The best team definitely won. Cheers Stuart.

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