Hibs lay to rest last year’s Hampden horror

GIVEN the niceties of capital rivalries, the players of Hibernian FC will probably not want to be told that yesterday was the day they discovered their hearts.

Big, brave, lionhearted hearts they are, too. With a comeback that was as improbable and unlikely as any in recent Scottish football history, the Hibs men gave a display that started as balefully non-committal, became utterly courageous, featured hitherto unheralded skill and ended on the highest of highs with a quite astonishing victory that was absolutely deserved.

Those Hibs supporters who walked out after their team went 3-0 down will have kicked themselves all the way back east, while those few idiots whose ugly anger at Pat Fenlon caused extra security to be sited beside the manager should be made to crawl on their hands and knees down the length of Easter Road to beg the wee man’s forgiveness.

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O ye of little faith. The true fan never walks out on the team, though to be fair, Hibs had been so abject for much of the first half that it was impossible to see how they could catch Falkirk. Yet the signs were there towards the end of the half, especially the introduction of the excellent Daniel Handling, while Leigh Griffiths had begun to motor.

That they came back to win in the 115th minute of a fantastic football match laid to rest the bogey of that cup final disaster, and now those long suffering fans must do it all again on Sunday, 26 May against Celtic or Dundee United. Will this be the end of 111 years of pain? If not, it won’t be for lack of heart.

With large swathes of Hampden empty, there was a lack of pre-match atmosphere in a stadium that needs to be full to have the semblance of chance of being raucous. Hibs reportedly had sold 17,000 tickets, Falkirk perhaps a quarter of that number, and for the Hibs fans to roll up in such numbers is testament to their love of the club. For no one needed to remind them about their last visit to Hampden, when Hearts destroyed them – there’s no other word for it – by the hurtful score of 5-1 in last season’s Scottish Cup final.

Still, the statistics spoke in Hibs favour. The teams had met seven times in the Scottish Cup between 1906 and 2006 and Hibs had won every tie. But in that time Falkirk won the Cup twice, and infamously, Hibs have not won the famous old trophy since 1902.

On paper, Hibs had better-quality players, but the current squad’s ability to underachieve is almost legendary. There has also been a nagging doubt about their courage and commitment – well, no one can ever question those qualities again.

On a day that was positively balmy compared to recent times, both sets of fans gave it laldy to their respective anthems before the match. Sunshine On Leith was sung in that Scottish rarity, some actual sunshine, before Amarillo was lustily belted out by the Falkirk contingent.

That Falkirk had five chances and took three of them while Hibs could only struggle to make untaken opportunities is the simple story of the first half.

Arguably not since Partick Thistle hit four against Celtic in the first half of the 1971 Scottish League Cup final had Hampden seen underdogs so rampant so early in a game.

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If Hibs were to have any chance, they needed a goal early in the second half, and with their remaining supporters at fever pitch, they got one, Alex Harris’ shot taking a slightly lucky path into goal off Michael McGovern’s flailing hand. It was an overdue slice of luck for Hibs, given that they had already hit the post and seen a penalty turned down in the opening minutes of the half.

Now the green contingent sensed something could be on. The fans upped the volume and the players responded by laying siege to the Falkirk goal.

For a time it was like a good old-fashioned playground game of shootie-in, and at one point all 11 Falkirk players were to be found in their own final third of the field.

After Griffiths’ penalty miss – actually more a fabulous double save by Michael McGovern – there was a feeling that Hibs had blown it, but after Griffiths’ first and Hibs second, it really did look “on” and when Doyle strode away and blasted the 83rd-minute equaliser, the outbreak of delirium among the Hibs players, management, and fans was entirely comprehensible. This was the stuff of green dreams, while for Falkirk their nightmare scenario was now reality.

Extra time was surprisingly even, and kudos to the First Division side for surviving until five minutes to go when Griffiths hit his astounding winner.

The Bairns looked out on their feet at times, but found the strength from somewhere to keep going to the end. All credit to them for their contribution to a great spectacle.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what happens to Hibs in the final. Yesterday they came so close to earning eternal opprobrium, and perhaps footballing oblivion for some of them and their manager, yet rallied to accomplish success of a most extraordinary kind.

Much is written about the redemptive nature of sport, and if you really want to know what it is, ask the players, management and fans of Hibernian FC. For yesterday they earned it, wholeheartedly.