This has got to stop. Hibernian cannot continue playing the part of Scottish football’s great tragedians. They will drive their fans mad. They will drive them away. They will send them plunging from the new bridge across the Forth before it is complete, rather than face away trips to Dunfermline Athletic in a record third consecutive season of banishment from the top tier. And a fine time for it to stop would be Saturday’s Scottish Cup final.
There can only be two outcomes to this one. Either Hibs win the cup or they get well and truly thrashed by Rangers. I don’t think the supporters could take another performance like last Friday, in which the team are in charge of the match, expressing themselves with deft flicks, playing with the style that everyone admires, only to be mugged at the death. Yet again. If there has to be another defeat at Hampden, better that it’s a swift and decisive dagger blow without another of those denouements where the faithful cry, sympathisers wince, ghouls get to relish the macabreness and the good folks of west Edinburgh can laugh.
Hibs have become a soap opera, a horror story, a black comedy and an epic tale visiting all the deserts and dragging on and on without end, or certainly not the ending the fans seek. Unless they can win that infernal, blasted cup.
If Alan Stubbs can pick up his men after this latest dreadful setback, then he’s the manager of the year, man of the decade and a statue should be erected in honour of him ending 114 years of sorrow, sorrow. Which pose? Maybe the quietly decent one he adopts while standing at the mouth of the tunnel at the end of games to shake the hand of every member of the opposing team, a familiar sight these past two Championship seasons, and which Peter Houston copied on Friday night.
A triumph would give lie to a grim suspicion. Despite Stubbs being listed as manager, and there having been many in the post before him, some wonder if the Easter Road club are in fact controlled by a sinister, sadistic force working in the shadows – the Marquis de Sade perhaps – otherwise how to explain this astonishing litany of cock-up, calamity and defeats extracted from the jaws of victory?
The Hibee great John Blackley, who has always lived close to the scene of the latest disaster, told me recently how a friend used to sum up the club’s fortunes: “You take us to the edge of the cliff, Sloop, then – aagh! – you push us right off.” It’s not a new sensation these young supporters, glimpsed at the final whistle at Westfield looking so distraught, are experiencing – Hibs regularly lost stupendously back in the 1970s. But that’s of little consolation right now – to them or their fathers, who’ve had the dunt in the back before.
Maybe there’s a tiny consolation in the different way they lose now. Previously the charge was that Hibs froze in big games, simply didn’t turn up for them. Stubbs has eradicated that. Casual observers make the flip observation that every Hibs failure is part of some fundamental problem deep-rooted in the club’s DNA – as if this season’s last-minute League Cup final defeat by Ross County has a clear correlation with Hearts’ injury-time comeback from 4-2 down in the New Year derby of 2003. I don’t see that. And equally I’m not sure Peter Houston can claim his Falkirk have more “character and desire” than Hibs. The Bairns fought like lions right to the end, where they always know a prize might await them, but I didn’t detect a weakening of the spirit in Darren McGregor or notice John McGinn cowering from Falkirk’s long throw-ins, as if medieval catapults were being trained directly at him.
Hibs played most of the football against Ross County, and the same in both Falkirk games. In the play-off they were undone by well-organised and crafty opponents but also tiredness and luck. David McCracken, after dodging harsh censure in both legs, probably woke yesterday morning to find two yolks in his egg and a £100 note in the street, which he might then have put on some hideous racket to win the Eurovision Song Contest, knowing that everything seems to be going his way just now.
Did Hibs’ cup runs harm the league campaign? I think we can now say that they did. The Championship winners of this season and last both made meek exits from at least one knockout competition. But, two-nil down to Hearts in the Scottish Cup with ten minutes remaining, Hibs didn’t much feel like throwing in the towel, instead showing some of Houston’s character and desire. You won’t find a Hibs fan who wasn’t hugely proud of that stirring comeback.
After the failed eras of Colin Calderwood, Pat Fenlon and Terry Butcher, Stubbs has restored attractive football to Easter Road. There will now be a debate about whether they tried to play too much of it in the Championship, on tight, bumpy pitches and against teams who lined up with two banks of four, even at home, and perhaps they did. Dominique Malonga v Anthony Stokes? There’s a fascinating debate. The Congolese could scare the living daylights out of slow-turning Championship defenders but was infuriatingly inconsistent. Stokes is showing good form now but, unsurprisingly, has taken this long to get properly sharp.
Chris Dagnall couldn’t help as the goals dried up for Jason Cummings.
The team always play better with Dylan McGeouch in it but he couldn’t stay fit. Many of these issues you would use to make assessments of Stubbs, who may be pondering who should be his goalkeeper. But a fuller appraisal should wait until after Saturday. A few weeks ago, Hibs fans were tormenting themselves with this question: “Scottish Cup or promotion and we can only win one – what’s it to be?” Many went for the cup but I bet all of them were more devastated by Friday than they imagined, because of the horribly cruel nature of that defeat.
If the cup final is to be the end for some of the personnel of this dizzying, demented season – manager and a few of the players – then they owe it to that tortured support to go and win it.