Still reading? Good. I shall expand on that point. This game was a completely different kettle of fish for what awaits these two sides when they face off at Hampden Park in May.
It was a strange atmosphere at Easter Road last night. Rangers’ fans, though still singing on occasion, were a little subdued as they were going through an emotional comedown after defeating Celtic on Sunday. Like the very best hedonists, they could have put off such a dip in energy had the encounter with Hibs meant anything other than pride, but it didn’t.
The home support, meanwhile, were still a little unsure of their side’s capabilities coming into the game. Sure, they had defeated Dundee United, but then who hasn’t? Besides, it was only on penalties. Were they actually good enough to reverse their recent form, charge into the play-offs and maybe, just maybe, end the 114-year wait for Scottish Cup glory? While they’ll feel a lot better about that question now, prior to the game they were still more than a little unsure, which was reflected in the 12,000 attendance despite a decent away support.
Both sets of supporters will be in completely different sorts of moods when they meet again next month and the same goes for the players. Is it possible that Hibs will still have the nothing-to-lose eagerness they showed in the early going? Will the Rangers defence have another one of their brain-farts to hand Hibs a goal or two? Yes, both of those are possible, but that’s the point. It’s equally possible that Hibs will become shot-shy on the big occasion while Rangers will rediscover their concentration.
There’s also the fitness issue to factor in. Hibs could play five extra matches between Rangers’ league season finishing and the cup final. Will Alan Stubbs’ side be out on their feet while Rangers are rested and raring to go? Or will the time off without any high pressure games cause the favourites to lose their intensity, all the while Hibs ride a wave of momentum? Again, nobody knows, and we certainly didn’t get our answer last night.
Instead of learning something new, we were reminded of a few things. Firstly, Hibs can defeat Rangers on their day. They almost threw it away at the end and were helped out by a shambolic opening 20 minutes from the visiting side, but with the form Hibs have been in recently this was a victory they needed to have happen, for their confidence if not for anything else. While it shouldn’t make a Hampden victory over the same side likelier, it reminded us that it can happen, something we may have forgot watching the entertainment vacuum that was Hibs v Dundee United and comparing it with the Old Firm derby a day later.
Secondly, John McGinn still has the capability to be “Super” John McGinn. Whether it was fatigue or loss of form, McGinn has not been himself recently, but that display against Rangers was him back to his talismanic best. On the opposite side we were also reminded that Barrie McKay, regardless of how his team-mates are doing or the identity of the opposition, always seems to be the best player on the park. Had Rangers escaped with a point, which they came so close to doing, it would have been down to his incredible strike. Before that rasper there seemed no way the visitors were getting anything out of the match and then, suddenly, Hibs were on the ropes.
Our final reminder regards Mark Oxley. Stubbs showed the usual (or unusual, depending on your point of view) unwavering loyalty he always had towards his goalkeeper by picking him over Conrad Logan, Saturday’s semi-final hero. All Oxley needed to do was get through the 90 minutes without making a mistake and the narrative would have soon died down. Instead, he failed to deal with a wayward James Tavernier cross (which was typical of the right back’s performance as he struggled to complete a pass all night) allowing Jason Holt to get Rangers back into the match. Rather than quell the goalkeeping controversy at Hibs, Stubbs had inadvertently added to it. It shall be interesting to see how he now addresses the calls for Logan to start.