It is the kind of day football fans remember. Ask supporters, of any team, where they were when Hibernian finally ended their 114-year Scottish Cup drought and most could answer.
“I was in Dublin with Graeme Souness doing the FA Cup,” says Neil Lennon, the man who is hoping to guide the Leith club to two in a row. “We were getting the score fed through to us so the banter was going back and forth. Needless to say, Graeme wasn’t impressed! To be fair, he was alright, he was in good form.
“I saw the highlights afterwards and all the manic scenes at the end, and what it meant to so many people. I think we have felt the benefit of that good-feel factor, there’s no doubt about that. I’m talking in terms of atmosphere around the stadium, the training ground and around the city among the Hibs fans.”
Lennon joined the club in the wake of that historic final but he has lived reruns and references to that Hampden result on an almost daily basis – the Persevere trophy tour, DVDs, celebration nights, singsongs and banners. None of it could be viewed as negative.
“The cup win did help me to come into the club,” says Lennon. “It meant it was easier, smoother for me up to a point. It was a good time to come in. I felt the club was on the way back and our job was to make sure to do it right.
“And to be fair to the players they have done a great job in defending the trophy up until now. OK, the Bonnyrigg game you pass off but the Hearts game was a real acid test, and we had two of those, and we handled both occasions brilliantly.
“Then we despatched Ayr United pretty comfortably so we have saved a lot of the big performances for the cup again, but they are a big game team. So I’m hoping for more of the same against the second best team in the country.”
Winning the league was always Lennon’s priority this season but he has conceded that retaining the silverware would be a pretty major bonus. The only team left in the tournament who don’t occupy one of the top berths in the Premiership, the Easter Road club know they are underdogs. They were last year as well as they navigated their way past top-flight and higher-ranked opposition. But that did nothing to curtail their dream.
“Last season they beat Aberdeen in the league cup and in this competition they beat Hearts and Inverness and Dundee United and then beat Rangers in the final. They showed a lot of character to be 2-1 down and come back and win it, having lost the playoff four or five days before. So, yeah, the bigger the occasion, the better they are. They beat Brøndy as well, away in Europe earlier this season. That was a great performance as well. It’s one I have not forgotten but it does get overlooked. That was a big, big win and told me a lot about the side at the time.”
Aberdeen are the latest obstacle and while Hibs bettered them en route to last season’s League Cup final, Lennon knows it would be wrong to underestimate Derek McInnes’ men. They have been second only to Celtic this season, losing out to Brendan Rodgers’ men in this term’s League Cup, and odds on favourites to finish second behind them in the Premiership.
“They have broken a record of home wins and had they shown that for last season they might have won the league,” says Lennon. “But I think Aberdeen have improved this season. They have already made a final, they are clear of Rangers, and that’s impressive. They are in a semi-final again so it is a tall order for us.
“Aberdeen have been so consistent and not only in their performances, they’ve been winning games, not just drawing.”
Aware of the dangers, the fact that the competition can reward anyone on any given day, is something that adds interest. For Lennon, the competition has happy memories.
“It has been very good to me,” he says. “I love it and I want to get to a final again because they are very special. They are more special as a manager. More intense as a manager as well. Very stressful. To go with a different club, one you wouldn’t be accustomed to winning with, would be very, very special indeed. But we have a big 90 minutes, or 120 minutes in front of us. A semi-final is normally a very tense occasion and we will have to start the game well.
“As a manager it was my first trophy so that makes it special as well. I am really looking forward to it.”