JAMES McPake could have been forgiven for doing everything possible to distance himself from Hibernian last summer.
His loan spell from Coventry had ended, with the Scottish Cup final defeat by Hearts being the last outing of that stage of his Hibs career. Had he decided that was the closing chapter of his time at Easter Road, it would have been all too understandable.
Instead, in June the centre-half said goodbye to the English Midlands and signed a two-year contract with Hibs. In doing so he left himself open to charges of masochism, but ten months on he is just a couple of steps away from having his return vindicated in style.
Granted, they are very big steps. Hibs will probably have to rediscover their best form if they are to make their way past Falkirk in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final, and if they get through that they will have to confront their demons in the final itself of a competition they last won a month before the Boer War ended.
But, after the trauma of that 5-1 defeat last May, Hibs are at least living in hope again. And in any case, for McPake it was the rediscovery of self-respect, not any dream of cup glory, that was the main factor in his decision to return.
“It’s not so much that I wanted to come back and lead Hibs to the Scottish Cup,” he said yesterday. “But I felt, we all felt, that we had let people down that day.
“I never had it in my head that I would come back and have the chance so quickly to go on and play in a semi-final, with the hope of getting into another final. But I wanted the chance to come back and help the club again, help lift it from a bad day last May.
“Games like that, any time when cup ties come up, you think about it, and you want to go out and put it right. It was a hard one for everyone to take, there’s no hiding from that. No-one is going to come out here and say it didn’t bother us.
“To lose any final is hard to take. That was my first final. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get to another.
“To be back and have the chance is good. It’s what you play football for, these big games.
“I didn’t want it to end like that. But, even if things had been different, I would have wanted to come back, I enjoyed it so much.
“I had been struggling with injury for a while and I enjoyed being here, playing proper football in big games, trying to avoid relegation and getting to Hampden for the first time in my career.
“I wanted to come back to play in big games. Thankfully it has happened again.”
Given the disinterested way in which they played, it would be no surprise if some members of the Hibs squad who left the club last summer were quickly able to shrug off the defeat by Hearts. They had shown little enthusiasm in playing for Hibs in the first place, so may well have been none too distressed about featuring in one of the club’s darkest days.
But for McPake and a couple of others such as Leigh Griffiths and Paul Hanlon, there was the danger that the defeat would have nagged away at them. Aware of that threat, the captain, for one, ensured he got the final out of his system as quickly as possible.
“It didn’t spoil my summer holiday. There’s drink for that – you can forget everything,” he joked.
“In football, you’ve got to get over days like that – or it will eat away at you. We showed that we had managed to get over it by the start we made to the season, apart from the very first game against Dundee United.
“That was something we needed to do. The longer we moped around being down on ourselves, the harder it would have been to pick ourselves up.
“Every player who loses a game is the same. You try to get it out of your system as quickly as possible.”
Saturday will be Hibs’ first time at Hampden since last year’s final, and McPake will do his best to ensure his team-mates are not haunted by memories of that day. They can always look back instead to last year’s semi-final, when they gave a good account of themselves in beating Aberdeen 2-1.
“We can’t think about it,” he said of the final. “That’s in the past. We can’t be going back thinking about that game or we’ll struggle.
“We have to focus on Falkirk, not even look to the final. We did that in the semi-final against Aberdeen last year, put in a professional performance, and that’s what we need to do again.
“There is a bigger thing here than losing that cup final in May. That is the 111 years since we last won this cup.
“I’ve never won a cup. Maybe Kevin Thomson will have some trophies, but I can’t think of too many others in the team who have medals.
“So there are a lot of different things going on, a lot more than just that final in May. Yeah, it was a bad day for everybody involved and the fans are probably still hurting.
“But we would be as well just quitting if that was the only game we ever looked back on. Am I going to look back on my career and say: ‘I was a footballer. But that day in May, that was my career?’ I’m not going to do that.
“What we’re looking at is changing the history of this football club. If we do that, yeah, it’ll take care of that day in May. But the main aim is to change everything.
“Making up for last year is the small part of it. The bigger part is going on and winning this cup for the club, because it’s been so long.”