Hibs' cup final before a cup final - eye on the prize against James McPake's Dundee
Hibs have devised a cunning plan to ensure there is no temptation for minds to prematurely drift towards Sunday’s Premier Sports final against Celtic.
They have contrived to schedule a cup final before the cup final. A rescheduled midweek fixture in December against Dundee would be difficult to mistake for a showpiece occasion in normal circumstances. But then these are very far from normal circumstances for Hibs at present.
The manager-less Easter Road team are relishing an appointment with Celtic this weekend and the chance to win just an 11th major honour in the club’s history. But before this there is Dundee to consider.
A win tonight won’t be viewed as historic. The three points won’t come tied with ribbons. The skipper, whether it is Paul Hanlon or Joe Newell, won’t be invited up some steps to collect them before turning and holding them aloft. These points would not be proudly placed in a trophy room and lovingly dusted each week.
Nevertheless, they would represent a precious booty to Hibs. Not since a 1-0 win over ten-man St Johnstone on September 26 has an Easter Road crowd celebrated the phenomenon of a home league victory.
On the face of it, Dundee are the ideal visitors. After all, the Dens Park side have not tasted victory at Easter Road since Steven Milne scored a last-minute winner in 2001. But James McPake’s side also desperately require something from the game.
An additional fascinating strand is that McPake, a former Hibs skipper, has been linked with the vacant Easter Road post. The original fixture was scheduled to take place on the weekend Hibs booked their Premier Sports final appointment with Celtic after a stirring 3-1 win over Rangers at Hampden.
That was just over three short weeks ago but a lot has happened since then. Hibs have already played another six games. The relentless pace with which matches are currently falling for them could be one reason for often jaded performances.
It is notable that St Mirren's equaliser in Saturday's 1-1 draw came with three minutes left.
Hibs have won only once since that comprehensive Hampden victory against Rangers, a run of form which Jack Ross paid for with his job.
Hibs parted company with their manager last Thursday morning to the surprise and in some cases dismay of their players. David Gray stepped in as interim manager in Paisley and will direct operations from the sidelines again this evening.
Normally a Tuesday night fixture before a cup final would involve being canny with personnel decisions and identifying players it would be preferable to avoid risking.
However, their current predicament means Gray does not have this luxury. This is a far from run-of-the-mill league clash. The interim manager could even throw Christian Doidge in for his first start since returning from a serious ankle injury.
Hibs need points as badly as their opponents need points. After suffering a painful defeat to Ross County on Saturday where they threw away a 2-1 half-time lead, Dundee are back in the relegation mire. But it’s a crowded league table. A win at Easter Road would leave them only a point behind Hibs, who would then be looking downwards rather than up. Defeat for the home team would make for an unusually gloomy pre-cup final press conference which has already been scheduled for the following day.
Newell, who was named skipper in the absence of the suspended Hanlon against St Mirren on Saturday, yesterday reflected on the question of putting Sunday’s final to the back of the players’ minds against Dundee.
“I think it might have been more difficult if we were doing a bit better in the league but the fact we are on this run and we know how important the game at the weekend was and how important this game is tomorrow night, then I have to be honest, no (it won't be hard),” he said.
“Our attention is fully on tomorrow night and hopefully we can win tomorrow and we can go into the weekend in a bright mood and be buzzing for it. But until then, then no, we genuinely can’t afford to not be thinking about tomorrow’s game or take it lightly.”
Hibs players have some excuse for being slightly disorientated at present. Figures of authority are changing on and off the field. Although it seems likely that Hanlon will take possession of the armband again tonight, Newell enjoyed his 90 minutes as skipper on Saturday. He was not necessarily the obvious choice to be given the armband.
“I actually told a few of the guys that I had captained one team before, my youth team at Peterborough, and we lost 5-0 away at Port Vale,” he said. “I thought it can’t get worse than that! Luckily it wasn’t too bad.”
Even without the armband, he is quick to take responsibility. After the 1-0 loss at Livingston which proved Ross’s last match in charge, he stressed to reporters that whatever the pressure on the under-fire manager, it was “on the players” to try and turn things around for him.
In the end they did not get the opportunity. Ross was gone the following morning. Newell’s strong words in that day’s papers were already out of date. He has stressed that the message remains valid, however.
“I don’t know if they (the players) would have read the reports," he said. "Obviously, the manager was sacked before the article I read came out.
“But that message was not a message anyone would have been shocked about. That is how we were all feeling. I said that when I spoke to you, it was something we all knew, and we all know still, that our performances are not worthy of playing for this club and the talent we have and the ability we have as a squad.
“It would not have been a surprise to any of the lads.”
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