Never in the history of the Scottish Cup has a club seemed to sleep with the trophy every night, fill it with porridge every morning, take it on to the streets in search of the most obscure and remote secret societies, knock on doors and declare: “We won this – would you like to see it?”
After the grandest of grand tours, the most inclusive of celebrations, you imagined that the moment when Hibernian had to give up the cup would be like a dramatic scene from a thriller movie, hands gripping the silverware like it was a dangling rope or a crumbling precipice, knuckles turning white with desperation not to let go.
Hearts at Tynecastle always had the potential to be the nightmare end to Hibee cup ownership, with the horror-flick denouement of a hand shooting out of the ground and clamping itself round the leg of captain David Gray at the head of the endless victory parade, gripping tight and dragging him down.
“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” sang Sparks over the public-address just before kick-off, but these two hadn’t been able to get at each other since the same round of the competition last season when Hearts led but ultimately lost. “Two-nil, you f****d it up, Hibs went on to win the cup,” read a big banner as the Easter Road contingent brandished plastic replicas of the trophy, but they had to hold their breath in the opening minutes when Esmael Goncalves, one of seven in maroon sampling the fixture for the first time, burst into the box, his shot being saved by Ofir Marciano.
No one else, though, had forgotten how these games go. Bruising bedlam all the way, in front of a sell-out at the Tynie Thunderdome. There wasn’t much scope for Sam Nicholson to show his flair and even less for Jamie Walker. Marvin Bartley and Malaury Martin had a middleweight contest in the midfield and Grant Holt and Goncalves, although not in direct opposition on the park, sought each other out for best-of-three super-cruiserweight chest-bumps. But rather than horror, Holt seemed to treat the day as comedy, chortling at the Hearts’ fans baiting of him, usually as he picked himself up from a thumping fall on a truly shocking playing surface.
Holt was loving every minute, especially when he breenged through the ineffectual challenges of three Hearts men to set up a chance for Jason Cummings shortly before the interval. It had been Hibs’ clearest sight of goal in a bone-juddering contest which Hibs were just shading.
Despite two fine wins before this, it’s early in the Ian Cathro experiment and Hearts lacked the cohesion of a Hibs team with only two derby debutants. One of them was Holt and nobody was loving this pulverising affair more than him.
Hearts moved Walker into a central position but, despite his good form recently, the winger immediately came up against an immovable object in Bartley – immense in last season’s cup derby triumph – who claims not even to like football very much. But the midfield enforcer would push Holt every inch of the way for man-of-the-match and eventually nab it.
Maybe Holt would have claimed the award if he’d managed to score the decisive goal. There have been times this season, straining and stretching the seams of his shirt, when he’s run out of puff long before the end, but this was his best game as a Hibee and midway through the second half he just failed to get good contact after a quick breakout had sprung James Keatings. As the beefy Englishman’s shot squirted into the away end, where the fans had been singing the same silly song for 15 minutes and would then give it ten more, the press-box wit said of his lusty effort to reach the cross that it looked as if he’d been hauling a caravan all the way. Harsh, but the player has surely heard much worse, indeed was probably treated to it yesterday.
So Hibs can sleep with the cup for a few more nights at least. Bartley is a big reason for that and, since we’re talking size, so’s Holt.