At the train station in Dunfermline last Saturday night, some Pars fans who’d already supped well in the pubs around East End Park in celebration of their promotion-clinching victory were heading through to Edinburgh to continue the party. The hot topic on the platform was who they wanted alongside them in the Championship.
“Raith Rovers,” said one. “And Falkirk, obviously,” added his pal. “And of course Hibs,” offered the third. Rovers would provide the local rivalry. Falkirk would bring the special (non-)relationship which extends to enmity, based on some never-to-be-forgotten old grudges. And Hibs would come with the big support which by next season would be able to sweep into Fife via the majestic new bridge across the Forth.
That may be what Dunfermline want but Hibs – an accommodating club, for sure, too much of one, their fans would say – cannot want this. They cannot allow themselves to be dragged back into the Championship by the scaly hands of a slavering beastie, as if 2016-17 in the second tier was going to be some kind of swamp-based horror movie.
For Hibs it would be exactly that. No matter that East End Park is a lovely place to watch football. No matter that the run-on song is the Skids, the run-off song Jimmy Shand – and the local delicacy a steak bridie. No matter, too, that Dunfermline v Hibs in 2016-17 would mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most ridiculously brilliant football matches Scotland has ever seen.
In September 1966 when the original road bridge was still quite sexy and new, the travelling Hibee contingent were getting ready to cheer a rare victory at the home of a club who’d been glorious in the Scottish Cup and stirring in Europe. Bob Shankly’s men had scored four without reply and there was less than half an hour remaining. A couple of Dunfermline consolations were answered with a fifth for Hibs – not long to go now. But outrageously the Pars managed to level the game at 5-5 and, with a young Alex Ferguson among their scorers, they surged again in pursuit of a last-minute victory. The home crowd were convinced the ball had crossed the line but John McNamee was adjudged to have cleared it. Hibs raced up the other end and made it the best of 11, although such must have been the panic and confusion caused by all the steak bridie warmers spontaneously combusting at the same moment that the history books can’t agree whether their winner was netted by Allan McGraw or Jim Scott.
No matter that this was “the most incredible game ever witnessed at East End Park”, according to archivist Tom Wright, Hibs simply can’t stick around the Championship to commemorate it. Ah, but what if they made a deal with the devil: one more season in the second tier but first they get to be glorious in the Scottish Cup, actually win it? Go to Hampden, come back carrying the bloody Scottish flamin’ Cup. In just seven weeks’ time. Beat Dundee United in the semi-final, and in the final… who cares? They just do it. At last. The Hibee Nation would take that, wouldn’t they?
This is the question with which the faithful are currently preoccupied, if it’s not actually driving them demented. Their beloved, infuriating team could yet achieve promotion and win the cup, though of course they might end up with neither. So if the fans had to choose one thing, were only allowed one thing, what would it be?
It’s heart vs head, pragmatism vs romanticism, tomato vs tom-ay-to. The grown-up, responsible-drinking, easyfit-breeks, Radio 2, accountancy-is-great answer would be promotion. The right answer, though, is surely the infernal, blasted cup. This is a nation divided. My son Archie, aged nine, who knows nothing of the 114-year-old quest, Dixie Deans hat-tricks, Arthur Duncan own goals and some other mob beating Hibs to the cup in 2012, but who’s smart enough to know that a Rangers-less Championship would be a quieter place which would struggle for “And finally… ” Sportscene airtime, chooses promotion. Mark, my laddie’s football coach who played for Falkirk in his day but is a devout Hibby, says it has to be the cup.
My good friend Rab, sat alongside me for too many quests for the holey pail ending in crushing disappointment, says it has to be the cup, too – as does Tom, my 1970s music dealer. “I think we can just about thole another season in the Championship,” he says. “It’ll be less glamorous without Rangers but easier to get out of. Winning the cup should more than compensate for failure to get promoted. Season-ticket sales would get no less of a kick, and hopefully the best players’ willingness to stay wouldn’t suffer either. But most importantly that annoying, screechy monkey would be off our backs.”
But Brian, my 1970s programme dealer, disagrees completely. “I’d love us to win the cup but we simply have to get promoted,” he says. “We’ve got the fourth-biggest budget in Scotland, we’ve got players most of the Premiership would love, we’ve been beating top-flight teams for fun. I like the manager a lot but we shouldn’t be losing to Raith Rovers. Right now we should be three points behind Rangers. If Alan Stubbs was to win us the cup he’d deserve manager-of-the-year, but would a third season in the Championship not merit his position being questioned?”
The Championship love Hibs. Every week the other clubs praise their fine football, and recently that’s been right after inviting them to their homely little grounds and beating them.
Hibs fans have enjoyed the Championship – trips along bumpy roads to places that aren’t Kilmarnock, terrific pubs like Kirkcaldy’s Penny Farthing and not forgetting Alloa’s Wasp-burgers – but don’t want to stay any longer than is necessary. One more season, though? One more campaign with awaydays to down-home Cappielow and doon-hame Palmerston, and with steak bridies included this time? If that’s to be the trade-off for the cup I think many would take it.
Spear-carrying for the reunited Old Firm with the consolation of being selected for tactic-board analysis on Sunday nights… or one great, die-happy-after-it day in May? Obvious, really…