As the clock ticked towards quarter to five yesterday, Hampden resembled one massive green-and-white love-in. With their team home and hosed after Joe Ledley put them three goals to the good, the Celtic fans were belting out their full repertoire of songs, including a typically rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Yet, all the while, incredible were scenes unfolding at the opposite end as the embattled Hibs supporters, who had remained in the stadium almost to a man, put on a spine-tingling show of pride and defiance. Anyone entering Hampden for the last ten minutes of the match would have struggled to tell which side was about to collect the old trophy as the Hibs fans, having done so for much of the afternoon, outsang their rivals. As the Hibs end bounced, almost gleefully, to the strains of Allez Allez Oooooh, the Celtic supporters, evidently impressed, stood in impromptu and sustained applause. It was a truly uplifting moment to round off a day when Hibs had, in a fashion, achieved their objective of restoring some pride following their calamity of 53 weeks previously against Hearts.
Of course, they headed through to Glasgow intent on winning the old trophy for the first time in 111 years, but, such is the gulf in quality between the two teams, their hopes were always reliant on two factors: Celtic throwing in one of their flaky Hampden showings and Leigh Griffiths being in the mood to conjure some match-winning magic. In the end, neither materialised. Celtic produced one of those ruthless performances which reminded us that, despite their wobbles on their way to the SPL title, they are still streets ahead of everyone else in the country. They were aided in no small part by the fact that Griffiths looked nowhere near fully fit and was barely able to lay a glove on the Celtic defence all afternoon.
Hibs’ talisman was a pale imitation of his usual rampant self, regularly crumpling in pain and frustration before eventually being substituted six minutes from time to a rousing reception from the Hibs fans.
At full time, he was joined by his team-mates in taking the acclaim of the fans on their wander of honour round their end of the ground. It was a far cry from a year ago when their meek capitulation had most fans scurrying back towards Edinburgh long before the final whistle had sounded. Here, there seemed to be a unanimous acknowledgement that, without Griffiths on top of his game, Hibs couldn’t have done much more to halt a fired-up Celtic side in no mood to pass up the chance of the double.
“In the end, Celtic were very comfortable, but I think the commitment and the desire was there for everybody to see,” said midfielder Kevin Thomson, one of those who may have been playing his last game for Hibs yesterday. “I don’t think we disgraced ourselves at all; the desire was there and that showed by the fact the fans were still there at the end, showing their appreciation to the boys. The fans were great. Unfortunately we just fell a wee bit short.
“Celtic have got the biggest budget and the best players in the league. The difference on the day was in the final third, where Gary Hooper showed deadly he is. We started on the front foot and if our chance had gone in, it could have been a different game. Instead, they scored with their first chance of the game and that takes the stuffing out of you a bit. I think the boys come out of it with a lot of credit, but it doesn’t matter whether you lose 1-0 or 10-0, it’s the same outcome. We’re bitterly disappointed.”
Yet it was a day that had seemed to hold plenty of promise for the hordes who had journeyed through from the Capital. If nothing else, buoyed by the knowledge that things could be no worse than last year, the pressure was off in many way and the Hibs fans were in fine spirits as they bounded around a sun-kissed Mount Florida with hope in their hearts and beer in their hands.
Inside the stadium, some 25 minutes before kick-off, Sunshine on Leith was blaring out over the Hampden sound system and when You’ll Never Walk Alone was played for the benefit of the Celtic fans, the Hibs support simply drowned them out with Allez Allez Oooooh. One-nil to the Hibees, if you like. When the teams eventually emerged, they were met by a magnificent card display which almost went right round the stadium, as well as the usual pyrotechnics. As far as national stadiums go, Hampden might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but on days like yesterday the old place comes into its own. The atmosphere was electric and Hibs responded best. Until one bit of slackness, coupled with some quality Celtic attacking saw all Hibs’ final optimism punctured in an instant.
With Celtic’s tails up after the early breakthrough and Hibs jolted, a microcosm of the whole match came in the 13th minute when Thomson, haring into a challenge on the halfway line, was left chasing shadows as Scott Brown, his long-time friend and ex-Easter Road colleague, pirouetted away from him, almost as if he was showboating. Thomson reacted by yelling at the off-the-pace Griffiths for not dropping back to help him out and Brown simply continued to pull the strings from his deep-lying midfield role. Hibs’ endeavour was trumped by Celtic’s quality.
There were many who had predicted this was how it might turn out, yet there was a time in the first half when Hibs looked in serious danger of total implosion. With Hooper having just nodded in his side’s second goal, the Celtic supporters en masse turned their backs on the play and launched into their trademark huddle. This Poznan-style Celtic merry-making is usually reserved for the later stages when a game is nearly won, yet here it was unfolding after just 33 minutes. And while it was going on, Griffiths dropped to the ground for the third time in the match, clutching his lower leg before leaving the pitch for treatment. His race looked run and the Celtic fans were glorying in it. “Can you hear the Hibees sing?” was the inquiry from the east end of the ground. “No. No.”
Yet within minutes Griffiths was back on his feet and scarpering through on goal like a whippet, only to see his effort from the tightest of angles trickle agonisingly across the face of goal. Still, it ignited the fans, who were given further reason for optimism by a rousing start to the second half. Jorge Claros, excellent in the engine room, showed Hibs were in no mood to throw in the towel as he went head to head with the snarling Brown. This was more like it from the “Pitbull”, who enjoyed personal redemption of sorts after the ignominy of being substituted before the break against Hearts last year. He looked a totally different animal yesterday.
When Ledley eventually quashed Hibs’ dream once and for all, we in the press area glanced to our left, half-expecting to see a raft of empty seats. It didn’t appear. Instead, the eardrums were subjected to a rousing ten-minute sing-a-thon from both ends of the ground.
With the game over, the players by now were going through the motions. Yet, down in the Celtic technical area, Johan Mjallby, their assistant manager, was doing his nut, demanding his players did not switch off and continued doing the right things. The mentality of champions. That’s what Hibs were up against.
For all that the Edinburgh side hoped to end their long wait for their Holy Grail, their main priority against a side evidently on a differently planet to them was to restore some severely battered pride. Despite the scoreline, the magnificent scenes which unfolded among their 20-odd-thousand fans would suggest it was mission accomplished on that front. Allez Allez Ooooooh.