On Saturday they moved into the semi-finals of the competition for the fifth time in six years but, having booked their place at Hampden, midfielder John McGinn says they now have to put it to one side and concentrate their minds on wrapping up the league.
Some feel that cup runs distracted them from that job last term, leading to a third season in the Championship and, while ending the cup hoodoo was more than ample consolation, a return to the Premiership at the end of this one is a must, according to the Scotland international.
“Last season was a really difficult run and they don’t really come much tougher than Hearts away,” said McGinn. “So to go there again and earn a replay and once again get through, and now beat Ayr, we deserve to be through and we are really proud of that.
“But if we don’t get promoted we’ll be failures. That’s not something to be proud of. We know how important it is to get back to the top flight. It’s all good and fair doing it in the cup, but we need to do it in the league.”
Ayr United have had two visits to Leith on league duty this term and won one and drew the other, but on a day when manager Ian McCall had to field a depleted side due to injuries and the fact striker Farid El Alagui was cup-tied, the visitors never threatened another upset.
Almost the entire length of the Championship table separates the teams and the gulf was evident. Hibernian, who have stuttered on league duty in recent weeks, with three draws and a defeat, were at it right from the off and set a tempo that their guests found hard to live with. The pace and the persistence of the home attacks, coming in wave after wave, made them difficult to repel and, by the 12th minute, Neil Lennon’s men were two up.
The first came from McGinn, who pinged a cross towards the back post. Daryll Meggatt headed it clear but McGinn picked up the loose ball about 20 yards out and curled a right-foot shot past Greg Fleming.
Just four minutes later, Martin Boyle’s speed caught Meggatt out and the Hibs attacker was grounded in a tangle of legs. The challenge looked to have occurred just outside the box but the referee pointed to the spot and Jason Cummings stepped up to skelp the penalty down the middle and make it 2-0.
It was a tough start for the visitors but they gave themselves a glimmer of hope when, out of nothing, Craig McGuffie, pictured, scored an exceptional goal, a left-foot curling shot after a Gary Harkins nod on.
But that hope was all but extinguished when Scott McKenna lunged in thigh-high on McGinn to earn a 44th minute red card. “It was a sore one but he didn’t mean any malice by it. It was just a mistimed challenge and I was pretty fortunate to get there before him,” said the injured party, who was one of the star performers along with Andrew Shinnie and Grant Holt. “I think I was clean through.”
But if that foiled a goalscoring opportunity, the third goal did eventually come. Hibs had to wait until the 79th minute, so solid and determined was the Ayr rearguard action, but such was the pressure, something had to give.
James Keatings was the man who grabbed the goal, just three minutes after he replaced Cummings.
The fans had been singing captain David Gray’s name all afternoon, hailing his winner against Rangers in last season’s cup final, and the captain provided the cross in the 79th minute, picking out Keatings at the back post. His effort went in off the underside of the bar to book the club’s swift return to Hampden.
“It’s exciting,” said McGinn, “something to look forward to. But it won’t be if we lose our grasp on the league. I think just winning the league would top anything. It’s important this club is flying high in Scottish football. It’s a club with huge potential, so it’s imperative for us to get back up there and start challenging again.”