The lad who once claimed he could open a tin of beans with his left foot, Jason Cummings, made a hash of the chance to unlock this match.
But it’s amazing what a bit of zing, a bucketload of self-belief and an eye-catching debut by goalkeeper Conrad Logan can do for a player seeking absolution.
From the minute he opted for an audacious dink in the 29th minute, sending his spot-kick over the bar as well as the head of Eiji Kawashima in the Dundee United goal, the Hibs striker was persona non grata with the frustrated fans and, judging by the looks on faces, some of his colleagues as well. But the longer the match plodded on without a breakthrough, the more inevitable the final outcome became. Never one to disappear into his shell, the gallus 20-year-old seemed destined to score the winner and take the Championship side into the Scottish Cup final – their second domestic final of the season.
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That the team were still in the cup by the time the penalty shoot-out afforded him that opportunity was primarily thanks to Logan, who proved that first appearances can be deceptive. The inclusion of the stand-in keeper, deputising for the suspended Mark Oxley, had caused some disbelief. He eschews the athletic build of most players, and not since soapstar Lisa Riley defied preconceptions and showed such nimble footwork on Strictly Come Dancing has such a chunky performer dazzled on such a big stage.
But the emergency signing, who turns 30 on Monday and hasn’t played first-team football in 16 months, was a pivotal figure as he foiled three one-on-one chances for United and, then, when it came to the shoot-out, contributed with two diving saves – one to his left, the other to his right – to gift Cummings his moment of redemption and give Billy Mckay nightmares.
Twice the United striker had been through on goal in the first half, but Logan got out smartly to cast a shadow and block the first with his legs and the second with his belly.
The match had been all Hibs in the opening 20 minutes, as they probed and prodded, trying to find a way to make the possession count. The real joy had been coming down the flanks and that forced United manager Mixu Paatelainen into an early rejig, taking off makeshift left-back Callum Morris midway through the first half and replacing him with Paul Dixon.
It helped shore things up and there was another shift in momentum when Cummings had his spot-kick aberration. The penalty had been awarded for a Coll Donaldson handball but the United defender was let off the hook by the humiliating miss and while it knocked some of the stuffing out of Hibs, it also gave the Tannadice side a lift.
The Premiership side had been destroyed 3-0 the last time the teams met, in the League Cup earlier this season. Hibs had built on that result and made it all the way to Hampden for the final. Having lost that to a late goal, there seemed to be some nervous residue on show yesterday. They had ultimately lost out that day to Ross County and trudged out of the national stadium bogged down with thoughts of what might have been. Having stuck to their task through this game and kept the match alive, as they stepped up, one by one in the penalty shoot out, John McGinn, Paul Hanlon, Martin Boyle and then Cummings, there was evidence that they did not want to be dogged by those Hampden regrets once again.
A compelling contest in the first half, as is often the case in semi-finals the second half had been more of a war of attrition as the fear of defeat put a stranglehold on proceedings. Errors peppered the occasion and misery and missed opportunities threatened to cast a long shadow.
United had come back into the game but another one-on-one save by Logan, allied to a couple of quality blocks by Henri Anier and John Rankin, ensured they found no way through.
The goalkeeper has had a rags-to-riches to more rags-to-riches career. On the books at Leicester for 14 seasons, he has teamed up with the likes of Jamie Vardy, Danny Drinkwater and even Harry Kane during a loan spell. But he has never really made the No.1 jersey his own and has spent a career pottering around the lower leagues at clubs such as Boston United, Stockport, Luton and, latterly, Rochdale, where he last performed in a first-team game, in December 2014.
Given that lull and the softer frame he was sporting at Hampden yesterday, many questioned the logic of pitching him in, but he was an assured presence from the outset, sweeping behind his defence and alert to any danger posed by United, or his team-mates who put him under pressure with a couple of slack passbacks. He was equal to it all and Stubbs will now have a tough time deciding whether to stick with the Irishman or reinstate Oxley for Wednesday’s game at home to Rangers.
After a disappointing spell, it is the kind of positive conundrum he will be happy to contemplate.