If Hibernian really are going to win the Scottish Cup, 114 years after their last triumph, then they’ll have to do it the hard way after this draw condemned them to a replay in Inverness, not a place studded with their great victories of the past.
The replay – which will come on Wednesday 16 March, three days after Alan Stubbs’ men have played the other Highlanders, Ross County, in the final of the League Cup – was secured with an equaliser 13 minutes from time, just when it seemed like Caley Thistle were about to give up ownership of their trophy.
It was a hard-fought and at time bone-juddering tie with Inverness manager John Hughes quipping that now and again some football broke out – none more so than when James Keatings gave the Leith men the lead, but they couldn’t quite hold on.
One good thing about already having a big day out booked for Hampden and being involved in a title race is that it slightly dulled down the chatter about Hibs not having won the Scottish Cup since 1902. Even the recent faltering of the league campaign has helped in that regard, reducing expectations in the ever-elusive tournament.
But if the Scottish really was priority No 3 on the Hibee list – after promotion and the League Cup showdown – the club were still relishing the opportunity for some room to roam yesterday. Play against some more of those big boys, who’re not going to throttle the game, denying your fluid midfield space, and get back to winning. That was the theory, anyway, after three middle-ranking Championship teams had hassled Hibs out of their stride.
That’s not to say, though, that Inverness are the type of team to stand back and admire. They were quicker into their rhythm with Miles Storey’s pace forcing Darren McGregor to concede three corners in succession. This has been a problem area for Hibs recently and Mark Oxley first protested he’d been impeded. For the third corner, however, he spread anxiety in the home stands by not challenging for the ball.
Some respite came with a Liam Henderson free-kick which found David Gray in splendid isolation. Owain Fon Williams parried his close-in header, also the follow-up from Liam Fontaine and really the latter should have scored. Then Hibs thought they had scored, Keatings netting after an Anthony Stokes effort had come back off a post, Fon Williams getting the slightest of touches, but offside was the verdict.
It had been a more than decent opening phase with Inverness robust in the midfield, not allowing John McGinn time on the ball, although there was indeed plenty of space elsewhere – too much for Hibs’ liking sometimes, although Jordan Roberts for one didn’t always choose the right options, trying a strike from an outrageous distance.
Caley Thistle clearly weren’t giving up their cup without a fight, Ross Draper’s aggression a symbol of this. Gray crashed into the Highlanders’ bow-legged giant, the pair shaking hands afterwards, though there was slightly less love on show when Draper then clashed with Kevin Thomson.
The big man was starting to maraud but he was left floundering by the first half’s most delicious piece of skill – a delicate McGinn chip over his hulking frame as he thundered into a charge at the Hibs player.
Caley Thistle survived a penalty appeal early in the second half – their had been one in the first 45, too, when Henderson was upended – before Storey and McGregor squared up. And then came the breakthrough. Keatings, who hadn’t scored in a while, had been lurking on the edge of the box for shots from distance, on one occasion being blocked by Draper, the immovable object. But in the next attack, encouraged by some lovely skill from Stokes, he pushed right into the box, the perfect position from which to slot home Gray’s low cross.
Inverness tried to find a way back during what was an especially niggly spell in the match but Henderson would have the next clear sight of goal, his effort squirting wide. Hibs then seemed content to play on the break and Keatings, sprung incisively by McGinn, crossed for Stokes, who was having a fine match, but the header was too high.
The cup’s installation in the far north seemed to be coming to an end, Caley Thistle couldn’t create anything, but in the 78th minute substitute Lewis Horner was allowed to get in a low cross which Roberts neatly teed up for another replacement, Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo, to hammer the equaliser high into the net.