Scottish Cup final: Past a heavy burden for Hibs

Hibernian captain James McPake and Celtic captain Scott Brown. Picture: SNS
Hibernian captain James McPake and Celtic captain Scott Brown. Picture: SNS
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WHEN considering Hibernian’s chances in the Scottish Cup final tomorrow, it is impossible not to look to the past, and wonder whether the code can be broken.

Gary Lineker once memorably described football as being a simple game, one where 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans win.

For Hibs, the rules of engagement in the Scottish Cup are almost as easy to summarise; they enter the competition and then, for well over a century, they have had to sit back and and watch as somebody else lifts the trophy.

Their excursions in the tournament have long since stopped being viewed as sanguine enterprises, and perhaps this weekend’s trip to Glasgow should be treated with greater foreboding, given that Celtic, Hibs’ opponents in the 128th Scottish Cup final, have the added incentive of clinching the double tomorrow at Hampden Park.

It is something they have not done often enough for anyone to expect some casualness to seep into their play, while their own less than impressive recent form at the national stadium demands extra diligence on their part as well. Defeats there against Ross County, Kilmarnock, Hearts and St Mirren will be preying on their thoughts, while even last month’s semi-final victory over Dundee United was a hard-earned affair, and which they could easily have lost. After successive 4-0 victories, Neil Lennon’s team, though deprived of the suspended Victor Wanyama tomorrow, look as though they are reaching optimum levels of performance again.

Hibs fans will be viewing the M8 motorway snaking ahead of them towards Glasgow with a distinct sense of unease, although they may comfort themselves with a very typically Hibs-style shot of stoicism. At least it can’t be worse than last year.

Helping to further strengthen this conviction is the make-up of a team that, even though it has been sadly deprived of skipper James McPake, looks far better equipped for the task ahead than 12 months ago.

Few thought Hibs’ display could unstitch so badly against Hearts. Even manager Pat Fenlon did not imagine that his motley crew of hired guns would fail to perform so spectacularly badly.

If they lose again tomorrow, there is the consolation that young men such as Alex Harris and Jordon Foster will at least bring the experience to bear to the benefit of Hibs in the near future. Those on-loan mediocrities from last year, such as Tom Soares and Matt Doherty, left soon after the debacle, and, you suspect, have barely thought about it again since.

No such luck for Hibs supporters, who remain painfully aware of their team’s litany of Scottish Cup failures. Tomorrow is only the second time that Hibs have reached the final in successive seasons; the last time was in 1923 and 1924, when, in losing to Celtic and then Airdrie, they failed to score a goal. They have reached the final on seven occasions since then, losing another six times (on one occasion, after two replays), and which brings us to tomorrow, and yet another chance to break the cycle.

The tread that Hibs have left in this competition is undistinguished, about that there can be no argument. It is impossible to ignore this history, both distant and recent. When the Easter Road club last won it, it was in the shadow of a football tragedy. Indeed, on the morning of the final, The Scotsman reported that a 24th victim of the Ibrox disaster had passed away in a Glasgow hospital, more than two weeks after a stand collapsed during a match between Scotland and England. Elsewhere in that day’s edition of the paper, there is a dispatch from Lord Kitchener, and lists of British casualties at places like Elandsfontein and Ermelo, during the second Boer war.

And then there is the recent past. A great gloom fell across Easter Road after last year’s final defeat, one that is perhaps only now beginning to lift, with Hibs succeeding in finishing above Hearts in the league, while also managing to return to the final at Hampden.

However, even this was a mission that was accomplished in the most agonising way imaginable in the semi-final. Only Hibs can lose three goals to a First Division side, before coming out and scoring three times in the second half, and then once more in extra time.

Which brings us to the Leigh Griffiths factor. The striker scored an explosive winner that day against Falkirk, and is seen as central to Hibs’ hopes of winning the trophy. He has scored 47 per cent of Hibs’ goals in the league this season. A pre-cup final rumour was even said to be spreading Edinburgh last night, one that suggested that he is now an injury doubt, because of a calf injury. The story was quickly shot down. The club’s PR department realise that fans don’t need another reason to be kept awake on cup final eve.

However, it has helped add further intrigue to a contest that, following a season of spats over league reconstruction and major disappointments concerning the Scotland national side, has still managed to capture the imagination.

It is hard to recall when a starting XI has been so feverishly discussed as Fenlon’s for tomorrow. Even non-Hibs devotees have been consumed by the dilemma that the Hibs manager has been faced with this week: Eoin Doyle or Ross Caldwell, two up front or one? Lewis Stevenson or Kevin Thomson?

The Hibs manager has had one decision taken out of his hands following McPake’s failure to shake off a back injury, meaning Jordon Forster is likely to start only his fourth game. Can the teenager now make a mockery of Hibs’ struggles in the Scottish Cup by claiming a cup winner’s medal in only his fourth start for the club? There are thousands before him who have tried and failed, and great teams from the past who have found the trophy to be as resistant to their talents as poor, unheralded ones.

Back in 1902, of course, it must have all seemed so easy. Hibs followed-up Hearts’ success the previous year by recapturing a trophy that they had last won in 1887, a mere 15 years earlier.

“Six times has an Edinburgh club won the Scottish Cup and the general opinion seemed to be that never before had a successful team ever got a warmer and more enthusiastic reception on returning to Edinburgh than did the Hibernians on Saturday night,” is the concluding line in The Scotsman’s report on the triumphant homecoming.

The Hibs party mounted a four in hand and set off up Princes Street, while being serenaded by “See the Conquering Hero”.

The good burghers of Edinburgh perhaps wondered when they would see the like again, never imagining that, for the green half of the city, it would take lifetimes, generations, and who knows how much longer?

In one of Scottish football’s least distinguished periods, perhaps there is one great, historic tale that has been stored up, and which could be set to unfold tomorrow.