Was that Hibs’ worst-ever semi defeat? There’s plenty of competition for that honour
The faithful may have wanted to position it right up - down - there with 2002’s League Cup defeat by Ayr United from a division below, rookie manager Franck Sauzee being cheated by guys he’d recently played alongside, ballooned corners by David Zitelli summing up a miserable night.
Immediately after last Saturday, the hammering by Hearts four years later in the last four of the Scottish Cup initially seemed impregnable. That was the game which prompted the despairful joke at the expense of goalkeeper Zibi Malkowski: “There are a couple of thousand Poles in Edinburgh right now and trust us to end up with the one who’s no good with his hands.” Nothing could be worse than that, could it?
Well, in terms of what overcoming Saints would have produced, maybe 2021 is on a par. In ’06 Hibs missed out on a final against Gretna; this year it could have been Livingston. A terrific opportunity mucked up, then, although Hibs are adept at losing finals to Livi - the League Cup in ’04 - so no guarantees there. As the auntie of a good friend remarked - this on the walk up to the national stadium for yet another semi in which the Leith team would lead late but still contrive to lose - “Hibs, they’ll always let you down.”
Apart from 2016 when they didn’t, and here’s an example of the perverse solace that football fans will seek when things go horribly wrong: “Losing again at Hampden just makes the day we won there even more special,” remarked another pal yesterday. “I almost don’t want Hibs to win another cup, at least not for a while.”
Safe to say, however, this is not a universal view. There may be a few others who feel they invested so much emotion in ’16 that they’re replete, exhausted or simply fatalistic about the club reverting back to the default position of invariably “Hibsing it”. But many more were enraged by last Saturday and the abysmal second-half collapse. They want more success. They want Jack Ross, who talks a good game, to deliver. And, though every player has his price and every club under Covid would welcome good money, they’re viewing this transfer window and the possibility of departures as a test of Hibs’ true ambitions.
Last Saturday from a Hibee perspective was shocking in itself but, coming three months after a Hampden semi attended by old, pre-’16 Hibs, it was doubly so. In the build-up, Ross claimed the St Johnstone tie wouldn’t be about making amends for the loss to Hearts. Rather this one, this chance to go on and win a trophy, was motivation enough. So what happened to that motivation after Saints’ second goal when there was still plenty of time to retrieve the situation?
Even before then questions had been piling up for Ross. Why start a semi with two new signings who’d played so little football recently? Why thump so many long balls when - Christian Doidge was on the bench - there was no target man? If Martin Boyle is so off his game right now that he can’t hit a decent corner, why persist? Why, once again, did the substitutions have so little impact?
The players had questions to answer as well. Scott Allan, much-missed recently and a three-time Hibby not needing brought up to speed about Easter Road aspirations and also frustrations, spoke wise words afterwards. “You’ve got to be a player who wants to stand up and be counted,” he said. “You have to be able to handle [the team being favourites] and put your personality on the game and want to be the player everyone is talking about.” He lamented the absence of such men in successive semis - “two big, big games”.
The Hibs players that everyone talks about - Boyle, Kevin Nisbet and Ryan Porteous - did not leave their imprint on the match. No one else in green and white did either, but these three are the poster boys and the players most namechecked by the pundits, often lazily, when form doesn’t merit it.
Currently two of them - Nisbet and Porteous - are wanted by English clubs. They are mentioned as future Scotland internationals, though haven’t been able to add to the showreels with their performances recently. They’re still young and still developing, of course, and it is Porteous who sparks the liveliest debate about whether or not the early promise will be fulfilled. The fans know him better, and in a sense, they don’t know Nisbet at all. Because of Covid keeping Easter Road empty, he could be saying goodbye before he’s properly said hello.
Ross would surely prefer to keep both for now. Hibs could still - just - be said to be a young and developing project under him. He often says as much but will know that this can sound like an excuse and he can’t keep saying it for ever. He won’t need telling that progress to a cup final last Saturday could have enabled him to show that progress is being made. He won’t need telling that this was another big game he didn’t win. Or that Callum Davidson in the other dugout, a manager for just seven months, is in charge of a project which is even younger, cost less and yet looked far ahead of Hibs, who’re threatening to slip back into the persona of serial disappointments once again.
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