Aidan Smith: Hibs face fraught finale

A FEW months ago, with Hearts looking doomed and Hibernian safe in mid-table, I made a mental note: “East of Scotland Shield.” For those dread summer months when football-wise nothing would be happening save for some obscure event over in Brazil, I thought I might start a campaign to bring it back.

Butchers much-debated rebuilding programme could begin in the Championship. Picture: Robert Perry

In truth, the third-oldest competition in world football has never gone away, but for a while now the Edinburgh rivals have sent out the kids. With no league derbies in 2014-15, I reckoned there would be great interest in making the Shield a first-team concern again. And while they were at it, maybe they could revive the Tom Hart Memorial Trophy and dig up the Festival Cup as well.

Fast-forward to the here and nerve-jangling now and Hibs are just a play-off away from preserving the derby anyway. If they fail to bat down Hamilton Accies then Terry Butcher’s much-debated rebuilding programme will begin in the Championship, which certainly wasn’t part of the original plan.

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If they fail and go down then some old chants will have to be crossed out of the songbook. “Not by the Hearts, the Hibs or the Rangers – we shall not be moved” will become anachronistic. That triumvirate makes the Championship intriguing to many, just as long as you’re not involved in it. Or just as long as you’re not Hibs, the only one of the three to potentially end up there purely because of incompetence on the pitch.

Whatever happens, this season has already been one of the most dismal on record for Edinburgh football. If you discount those campaigns when either Hibs or Hearts were in the second tier, these have has been their worst performances in a top flight featuring both. This has come in a season where once again both Highland clubs have secured their Premiership status, Inverness Caley-Thistle comfortably so. The latter also reached the League Cup final while modestly-supported St Johnstone have just won the Scottish Cup.

The previous worst was 1984-85 when Hearts finished seventh and Hibs eighth, just above the two relegation places in what was a ten-team Premier League. Hearts weren’t relegated until 1976-77 and then made a bit of a habit of it, dropping two more times and once failing to bounce back straight away.

Hibs, who had to win the old Second Division twice in the 1890s before being elected to the upper tier, were first relegated in 1930-31. Leith Athletic managed to finish above them that season and Hamilton made tenth. Their other relegations came in 
1979-80 and 1997-98.

What can they learn from history? Fans will look back to the only other time they were involved in a play-off, at the end of 1996-97 and again with a team from Lanarkshire, and they will shudder. Yes, Hibs eventually overcame Airdrie but the first leg at Easter Road was tension-filled torture, a horrible game on a scorched field where the ball squealed for mercy and so did many in the crowd.

A Steve Cooper own-goal gave Hibs the narrowest of leads. In the return featuring four penalties, eight bookings and a sending off, they won 4-2. Manager Jim Duffy breathed a sigh of relief big enough to have got the helicopter from his fanfare arrival at the club back into the air. He vowed: “Never again.” True to his word the following season Hibs opted for straight relegation.

The team in those Airdrie play-offs included Jim Leighton, John Hughes, Gordon Hunter, Pat McGinlay, Keith Wright and Darren Jackson, with Barry Lavety and Kevin Harper among the subs. Too good to have been flirting with relegation? Obviously not. On paper it looks stronger than the current team with World Cups behind Leighton and one for Jackson yet to come. That’s slightly unfair because the abject performances of Butcher’s lot are obviously much fresher in the mind. There are fewer Hibs fans in the side now than there were then, but that’s a trend across football.

Seventeen years ago, the surface was bare and bumpy. At New Douglas Park it will be plastic. In ’97, Hibs had seven days between their final league game and the first leg, a normal gap. This time they’re having to wait slightly longer – 11 days – and no-one will know until tomorrow night whether this has been good or bad.

After defeats players always talk about wanting the next game to happen right away, to put it out of their system. Against that, the extra days will hopefully give Kevin Thomson time to heal – his composure, class and, above all at this critical stage when some can hide, willingness to get on the ball were badly missed against Kilmarnock.

Will Hamilton be more tired than Hibs for having to keep playing, or will continued games be in their favour? Hibs, for their part, must ignore cheap talk, that they’re better than Hamilton, that they’ll just about manage to do enough to survive. Before every bottom-six game, and Hibs only had to win one of them, the pundits said: “They’ll do it today.”

Such easily-uttered remarks have offered them no shield thus far but now they really have to do it. Then the East of Scotland Shield can get its upgrade.