Kevin Nisbet speaks on peculiar second Scottish Cup chance at Hibs as he recalls Edinburgh derbies as a teenager

Kevin Nisbet had every right to presume his Scottish Cup dream was over as he trudged off the pitch at Stair Park in late November last year.

Kevin Nisbet during the 2-2 draw between Hibs and Rangers at Easter Road in September (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

After all, there was nothing to suggest there might be a reprieve on the horizon after Dunfermline had endured becoming one of the first victims of a 2019/20 Scottish Cup shock following the 1-0 defeat by Stranraer. There were few fears the tournament would not be completed as planned that season.

Stranraer’s ground has been a cemetery of hope for many. On this occasion, it was Dunfermline who had come a cropper. It was the sort of surprise result that gives neutrals a thrill. “That result came out of the blue because I thought we started the season really well and played well in the Betfred Cup,” recalled Nisbet. “That’s what the Scottish Cup does, it brings a lot of shocks. Unfortunately, we were the ones on the wrong end of that one.”

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Dunfermline, then going well in the Championship, were expected to take care of Stranraer from a division below. The visitors threw everything at their hosts. Nisbet himself hit the bar. But a second-half penalty from James Hilton was enough to send Stranraer into the next round, where they enjoyed the kind of money-spinning draw that deepened Dunfermline’s dismay.

Stranraer were handed a trip to face Steven Gerrard’s Rangers at Ibrox. Nearly 40,000 watched them put up a stuffy display in a 2-0 defeat. Dunfermline, meanwhile, got back on with seeking to secure a Championship play-off place and they were in the hunt when the season was suspended, then curtailed, due to the pandemic. Everything changed, including the rules – specifically Scottish Cup rule 13.4. The late Jim Farry, the famously authoritarian Scottish football administrator, would be beside himself.

Even when Nisbet joined Hibs in early July in what was one of the first mid-pandemic signings, he was not hopeful. His new side were still in a tournament that had been suspended, along with the season, shortly after the last eight stage. The edict that players cannot play or be named on the bench for two clubs in the same edition of a cup competition is among the most immutable laws of football. Nisbet expected having to sit out a semi-final that pitched Hibs against local rivals Hearts before information emerged that the rule was being relaxed.

It was good news for Nisbet, as well as Alex Gogic, Drey Wright and Kyle Magennis, all of whom appeared for other clubs in the Scottish Cup last season prior to signing for Hibs. One drawback is it also means Craig Gordon, who was a substitute for Celtic in the competition last season, can line up against them for Hearts on Saturday. “When the rule came out that said I could play, I was delighted, obviously,” said Nisbet. “To go straight into a semi-final and a derby, you can’t really get much better than that.”

It already means he's gone further than ever before in the Scottish Cup. Prior to this season, the deepest he had been was the fifth round while with Partick Thistle. It gives Nisbet an opportunity he never imagined he would have as he sat nursing wounded pride in the away dressing-room at Stranraer nearly 12 months ago. Even Stair Park’s attendance that afternoon of just under 500 exceeds the number that will be present at Hampden on Saturday.

More’s the pity when you consider the atmosphere when Hibs won the trophy in 2016. Nisbet watched the 3-2 defeat of Rangers at home with his brother. “There is a video going about on Twitter of the fans singing Sunshine on Leith,” he said. “I think when you watch that it gives you goosebumps. It just makes you excited for when the fans come back.”

He may watch it again prior to the weekend but there’s no need to try and gee himself up. He knows what is at stake. It’s an Edinburgh derby after all, whether at Hampden, Easter Road or Tynecastle, in front of fans or behind closed doors. Nisbet is not a complete innocent. He was at Hibs as a youth and played against Hearts in Under-15 and Under-16 games.

“They were really feisty encounters,” he recalled. “It does not matter if you are 14 or 15, you see the passion there. I think that works right up to the first-team.”

He has played at Hampden twice before – once with East Stirlingshire against Queen’s Park, the then tenants, and once while at Raith Rovers. He scored both times. On each occasion the atmosphere was as eerie as it will be this weekend, when banks of empty seats will remind us that this is no ordinary Edinburgh derby, if such a thing exists.

Now 23, Nisbet has shown he is capable of handling the step up in level. He has already plundered a top-flight hat-trick against Livingston in an impressive start to his Easter Road career. “It is just a bit of a maturity to be honest,” he said. “I think playing at Raith and Dunfermline helped me a lot, playing games week in and week out and scoring goals. As I said before I even kicked a ball this season for Hibs I knew I would come here and score goals.”

Nisbet is desperate to make the most of an unusual second chance in the competition. Stranraer now seems so far away in every sense.

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