You’ll find it filed next to the one seeking confirmation that the Old Firm derby is not just the best in the world but the secret of life’s inner meaning. And it goes like this: “Hibernian, what’s your excuse for bottling it this time?”
Well, they didn’t bottle the League Cup final. The tedious question asked after almost every defeat – other teams are allowed losses, for Hibs it’s always a full-blown crisis demanding ruthless dissection of their mental state – just didn’t come into the equation. But they didn’t win the cup, Ross County scoring a late, ugly, gnarly winner to send their heavily-outnumbered clump of fans jigging with joy.
Alan Stubbs’ team played the better football, enjoyed the bulk of the play, but while they got a fine performance from Anthony Stokes, Jason Cummings had a frustrating afternoon when the big, sexy headlines he’d dreamed about had to be stored away for another day.
For Hibs, Hampden holds many more terrors than time-capsule treasures, not least their 2012 Scottish Cup final defeat, 5-1 by Hearts, a hideous event which must have prompted a spike in demand for psychotherapy down Leith way. Name that team? There were so many loan players in green and white, guys who didn’t look like they cared overmuch, that many of the faithful can’t.
Hibs at Hampden had been thrashed by their Edinburgh rivals and not just once either. Yesterday they’d turned up expecting to win with four times as many fans as the opposition, only to fluff their lines. But none of this was Stubbs’ fault. In their only previous Mount Florida visit during his reign, they had bombarded Falkirk only to lack the luck. But had he contrived a new way for Hibs to lose? The fans were hoping not.
Hibs started edgily, nervously, as you might when you come out of the tunnel and see almost four times the usual mob expecting you to be scintillating. Passes were overhit and underhit. Liam Fontaine thought he had time to bring down a high ball but the jitters got to him.
The final came alive when Cummings cut out all the dithering, didn’t bother trying to tether the troublesome sphere, and skelped it with his left, one of those cocky playground shots, and Gary Woods had to be smart to tip over. A minute later the goalkeeper did even better, bravely getting down where it usually hurts to foil David Gray.
Hibee woe at Hampden is such an epic tale that the club will probably always be bumping into demons from their past. County manager Jim McIntyre was such a man, having scored the late winner for Dunfermline in a 2007 semi-final when expectations had again been high. Here he saw County respond with dangerous crossballs, one of which found Martin Woods in splendid isolation but he couldn’t find the right connection.
Had Hibs picked the right team? A fairly audacious theory advanced in the build-up suggested Stokes and James Keatings – in Cummings’ absence – were a better-linking front pair. But surely no side can drop its top scorer. Stokes sprung a move which almost let in Cummings and then had a go himself, but Woods was looking solid, like he might turn out to be a Hampden hero.
County’s opener was a result of more Hibs faffing. John McGinn wasn’t decisive enough in dealing with a breakaway and then Kevin Thomson was woefully short with a pass. Michael Gardyne, a sparky presence throughout, rounded Mark Oxley to stun the massive green-and-white contingent behind him.
Hibs responded but their creative types, McGinn and Liam Henderson, were finding a plucky Staggie shadowing every turn and drag-back. Gray had a chance and then, just as the new Hampden scenario for the Hibees seemed to be taking shape – dominate the play but fail to score – they did just that. Fontaine had looked the shakiest of the Leith men but his strikers, both desperate to be the man, couldn’t fail to have been impressed with the way he turned and drove home with his left foot.
Much of what’s good about Stubbs’ team comes from McGinn. He got the good first touch after the re-start that eluded him at kick-off and he was away. There was even some nice interplay between Cummings and Stokes before the latter squirted an effort just past. Hibs were dominating and if County were going to get back in the game it would be through Gardyne and a charging run by him almost produced something. Cummings was desperate to be in the headlines the next day – too desperate. He blazed a shot over and Stokes screamed at him for that. Then his lack of a right foot prevented him from finding his partner with a ball across the box.
There was a scare for Hibs when substitute Brian Graham netted with a header but he’d climbed all over Oxley. The men from Leith tried to find a way through a dogged County defence, with Stokes looking the likeliest, but then Gardyne led another breakaway for the Highlanders, Fontaine got a horrible touch and Alex Schalk had an easy job to score. There was just time for Fontaine, Hibs’ most unconvincing defender but most dangerous attacker, to attempt an overhead kick, but, as the song goes, their hearts were broken.