THERE were clear blue skies above and a Hibernian player stretching every sinew in an effort to score a hat-trick. Some unlikely sunshine last night returned to the lives of the Hibs supporters as the Easter Road side confounded the expectations of many to claim a very healthy play-off advantage, thereby reducing the tension ahead of Sunday’s climax.
As he sought to portray the pervasive nature of the trepidation felt in the run-up to these clashes, Hibs manager Terry Butcher claimed that “it fills your sandwiches, you clean your teeth with it”. Of course, he strayed away from using the word fear. Instead, he tried to convince those present that he was excited by this second chance Hibs had been handed. Now we know why.
Rather than slip meekly into the close season, Hibs have the chance to at least say farewell to their fans in a positive manner this weekend. The players were back to being hailed as “Butcher’s boys” last night by the fans, to the tune of Cum On Feel the Noize.
This pilloried group (Hibs, not Slade) have made a good start to earning some redemption for themselves as well as their manager. Might they, Butcher and the supporters now be friends again? Butcher was cheered by the away fans each time he punched the air in front of them at the end.
This was, the manager had stressed, the ideal opportunity to right the wrongs stretching back to a 7-0 thrashing by Malmo in July, which means this season in hell has been almost one year long. It has felt like it too for the Hibs fans, who followed their team through to Hamilton last night in good numbers. They leaped about in such a manner after Jason Cummings’ stunning opener that you wondered whether they had ever celebrated a goal before.
It has certainly been a while. It was 427 minutes since their team had last scored an away goal and these fans were damn well going to mark Cummings’ first goal for the club. But it was clear that a huge amount of relief was also contained in this outpouring as fans spilled on to the pitch on the far side of the ground.
It had seemed apt at first that most had taken their seats in something known as the Spice of Life stand, a structure sponsored by various curry houses. This was a night when it was expected that these fans would need a good constitution, with those in the Hamilton camp having taken every opportunity to remind the visitors just what was at stake, and why the pressure was firmly on the Premiership side. And so it was.
But Hibs were also the fresher team, and the ones with the most to prove after weeks and weeks of negativity, and though Hamilton were the livelier side in the opening half, the visitors proved surprisingly clinical.
Still, it does say much about them and their season that no-one can feel confident about their ability to defend even this solid two-goal advantage at Easter Road on Sunday.
It was, many claimed, akin to a cup final. But there were some crucial differences. This was not the place to come out to sample the pitch in a new designer “cup final” suit, nor would it have been right to road test a new strip, as is often the case in showpiece occasions.
Hamilton had, of course, stood within two wins of the Championship title, and automatic promotion, just a few short weeks ago. But after defeating Falkirk in the play-off semi-final, they were still portrayed as being in better fettle than Hibs, who have been stewing over finishing in second bottom place since defeat by Kilmarnock earlier this month.
Things might well have been different had Mickael Antoine-Curier converted a chance to score just after Hibs edged ahead. However, his volley was well blocked by the advancing Ben Williams. Even before Cummings’ opener, Louis Longridge had stabbed a shot just wide.
A goal by Hamilton had felt more likely than one by Hibs, although Scott Robertson had seen a clipped effort bash off a post. And then came Cummings’ moments in the sun. His first goal was rifled past Kevin Cuthbert from 25 yards with the minimum of back-lift. His second was deftly clipped over and judged by the far-side linesman to have crossed the line before being cleared by Ziggy Gordon.
This was not what Hamilton had in mind on an evening when they wanted to make it as inhospitable as possible for the visitors. Or at least as inhospitable as it is possible to make it when one stand is a glorified gazebo.
Still, the stadium announcer had certainly tried his best to ratchet things up, with a selection of songs that concerned themselves with the pursuit of greatness.
Glory Days, the old Springsteen number about trading on former glories, was perhaps more relevant to Hibs than Hamilton, while David Bowie’s Heroes is a staple of occasions where there is everything to play for.
However, no-one thought to point out to the Thin White Duke when he was recording this song in Berlin that being a hero for just one day might not be enough in a two-legged Premiership play-off tie.
Hibs still have work to accomplish, and even if they do emerge successful, they will not be heroes. What they might have done last night, however, is made it more likely they will avoid being remembered as zeroes.