At the start of the season, if someone had offered Hibs the opportunity to challenge for promotion and contest the nation’s two major cup finals, they would have jumped at it. The odds of them finishing the campaign with some sort of positive return were promising but, now, with only runners-up medals to show for their first final of the season and gut-wrenching disappointment in the Premiership play-offs, everything rests on the Scottish Cup.
Lose it and the season will be remembered as a churning mix of disappointment, frustration and unfulfilled promise. Win it and the players, the manager and everyone associated with the club become legends. On such fine margins will contracts be decided and reputations based.
“That’s the beacon of light we can look towards,” said devastated defender Darren McGregor, as he fought back tears in the aftermatch of the play-off defeat by Falkirk. “Just now, I’m really low, I probably will be for the next couple of days, but you just need to get the professional head on. It’s difficult because we are all human. All the guys are upset, it’s just really difficult to take.
“We had it in our grasp and to let it slip the way we did is reminiscent of times we’ve done that before and it just really hurts when you lose in that manner.
“The only thing that will come close to rectifying that is if we go and put in a good performance in the Scottish Cup next week.”
As a Hibernian fan, he knows the importance of that tournament. One in which they have drawn a blank for 114 years, it is the source of most misery and provides their foes with all the ammunition they need as the alleged curse of a gypsy continues to dog generation after generation of players and fans. But for those who do not believe in superstition, it marks the finest and only surefire way to write their names in the history books and on Saturday, McGregor and his colleagues intend to do just that and quash all chatter about “Hibsing it”.
“I’m more aware of it than anybody else because I have been on the other side of the fence, judging as well, so to be in the midst of it and having a contribution towards it is doubly hard for me but I need to take it on the chin and move on. Although this [play-off defeat] is a massive disappointment, there’s another massive opportunity to right the wrongs of this and potentially win a cup that we have not won in over 100 years.”
Guys like McGregor have grown up in the shadows cast by the nation’s premier cup competition but even those who do not share his Edinburgh roots or his lifelong affinity with the Easter Road club are soon apprised of the importance most Leithers place on shaking that particular monkey off the back.
“ People couldn’t wait to get it out their mouths! I think we all get to find out very quickly about the Scottish Cup and this club when you work here,” said head coach Alan Stubbs. “It wasn’t long after I got the job that I started to find out what has happened over the years. Last year we were close to getting ourselves into a final and giving ourselves the opportunity to do it and this year we have gone one step further. The fact we have gone one step further means we have a better chance of putting to bed this 114 years thing.”
Having lost out in that semi-final, in the next cup competition they went one better, reaching this year’s League Cup final. Back in a final, Stubbs wants to bring down the curtain on a season that has failed to deliver the number one target, by going one better and serving up the Holy Grail instead.
To do that they will have to overcome Mark Warburton’s Rangers. Hibs suffered a 6-2 skelping in the Petrofac Cup at the start of the season but the clubs have shared the spoils in subsequent games, winning two apiece. Rangers did prove to be a more consistent, winning the league title, finishing 11 points clear of Stubbs’ men in the end. But now they face a one-off, do-or-die cup tie, which not only offers the added bonus of European competition at the beginning of the new term, but offers Hibs the only way of salvaging this season.
“It is obviously the most prestigious game in Scotland at the end of the season and the fact it is against one of the big two makes it even more of a high-profile game and, obviously, it would be great to do it,” Stubbs added.
Having been well informed about past failures, Stubbs believes that he now has a squad of players who can defy history and curses and bounce back from the body blows dealt them this season and finish on a high.
“Listen, people will look at omens and history, but the thing you want to do is create history,” he said. “Then, in years to come, people will look back at that day, 21 May, 2016, at Hampden Park, when hopefully, after 114 years, that was the year we won it. Because of our history it probably takes on more significance, but I won’t be emphasising that to the players because I think the game is of such importance anyway that you don’t really have to mention it.”