Why Hearts and Hibs must place so much emphasis on this Scottish Cup weekend

While every club wants to win a trophy, for some there is a greater need, even desperation, to end the season with silverware.

Shaun Maloney and Robbie Neilson continue their sides' respective Scottish Cup journeys this weekend. (Pictures: SNS)
Shaun Maloney and Robbie Neilson continue their sides' respective Scottish Cup journeys this weekend. (Pictures: SNS)

Fully aware that the Premiership battle is never likely to offer such a return, in a world of more, more, more, fans of the bigger, non-Old Firm clubs, who used to be cognisant of limits, have grown blase about finishing ‘best of the rest’.

Now that only seems to satisfy the demand when accompanied by cup success.

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Last season Hibs manager Jack Ross came close. But, wrapping up third and progressing into a final and a semi-final in the cup competitions was not close enough to save his job.

While Robbie Neilson’s coat jiggled on a shoogly peg after his Hearts side slumped out in the second round, humbled by Highland League Brora Rangers.

Which is why the Gorgie boss and his latest Easter Road counterpart Shaun Maloney will be so keen on defeating St Mirren and Motherwell, respectively, this weekend and booking their place in the semi-finals, in the hope their current seasons can be provided with a silver lining.

Hearts’ penalty shoot-out victory over Livingston in the previous round kept them in the hunt. But it was telling that, as well as looking forward, manager Robbie Neilson couldn’t help but cast a rueful glance back over his shoulder. Not at last term’s shock but at the year before.

Relishing just how clinical his men had been from the spot and how uncompromising his keeper had proved in goal, he said he wished they had all performed so productively when facing Celtic in that 2019/2020 final at Hampden.

It seems the Tynecastle boss has not managed to shake the sense of what-might-have-been that has been lingering since that near miss against Neil Lennon’s Parkhead side.

A Scottish Cup winner as a Hearts player, he is acutely aware of the celebrations and hero status that comes with delivering silverware to EH11.

But, other than that one occasion, getting so close to replicating his 2006 triumph as a Hearts player has not proved easy for Neilson as the club’s manager.

He has also overseen a fourth round and a fifth round exit. The fact that the latter was at the hands of rivals Hibs, as the Leith side’s perseverance finally paid off, ending a hoodoo and robbing the Gorgie fans of one of their go-to barbs, has not been easy for some to move on from.

There are still fans who feel that despite earning them two promotions from the Championship, leaving them second in the table when he headed off to MK Dons at the end of his first managerial term, and steering them third spot this time, comfortably ahead of the teams who would gladly swap places, when it comes to big games, of the do or die variety, he struggles to deliver.

And, their belief in him was tarnished severely by last season’s ignominious cup exit - a result described by many as the most embarrassing in the club’s history.

Those are the kind of mishaps not easily forgotten or forgiven, although cup success tends to help addle the mind and launder the memory.

But, one of the other seven teams left in the competition, Hibs have placed just as strong an emphasis on the need to win trophies.

They have never placed lower than semi-finalists in the past five domestic knock-out tournaments but, having finally tasted just how sweet success is on May 21, 2016, they are now fed up being served what they see to be failure on the Hampden stage.

Ross paid the price for that, losing his job as his team prepared for the League Cup. In his absence they still came up short, though, against a Celtic team used to winning.

But, history shows that while keeping pace with the Old Firm sides over the course of an entire campaign is almost impossible, the capital fans can point to instances when one-off head-to-heads have gone their way and delivered the pre-season target.

Hearts found a way to better Rangers in the 1998 final, just as Hibs did in 2016, while Craig Beattie’s penalty celebrations in 2012 showed just what it meant to oust Celtic and send Hearts through to the final, where they swept Hibs away to register one of the most notable results in the club’s history.

Two clubs, whose fortunes are so intrinsically linked, Hibs have enjoyed a spell of league superiority in recent years as Hearts stuttered in the wrong end of the table and then were forced to rebuild after being cast into the championship due to decisions taken in boardrooms and on zoom rather than on the pitch.

But the Easter Road club are now being reminded how much it stings to be cast as the understudy as they trail well behind their derby foes in the Premiership points.

Which is why the cup is so important to the mood in the stands.

There will be at least one more derby but those bragging rights do not have the sway a cup triumph would have.

At the bare minimum, each club needs to survive the other in this year’s competition.

Seeing Hearts better them in league and cup would infuriate a Hibs support still to be convinced that Maloney is the man capable of shining some sunshine on Leith and watching them go on to win it would cut deep after so many close calls of their own.

On the other side, a shiny prize in the trophy cabinet will nearly always trump a lofty league finish, and Hearts’ good work in their first season back in the Premiership would count for little if Hibs get to climb the Hampden steps and claim the cup in May.

Which is why this weekend is so important.

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