THEY could stand accused of fleeing a crime scene . . . but for Hibs fans it was more a tactical retreat.
Barely 30 minutes after the final whistle sounded on a dismal afternoon for the Easter Road faithful and scores of downbeat fans were already making good progress on the slow trundle back towards the Capital.
Resigned to defeat moments after half-time, many sought to profit from the impossible task facing their team to secure a head start on the M8, avoiding the worst of the traffic and making the best of a depressing day out at Hampden.
On coach five back to the Hibernian Supporters Club in Sunnyside, crestfallen voices spoke of a team that froze on the big occasion and of “that” penalty decision.
Suso Santana’s swan dive into the box shortly after the interval – which made the score 3-1 and condemned Hibs defender Pa Kujabi to an early bath – effectively ended the game as a contest just as the underdogs were making some headway.
It was this “blunder” by referee Craig Thomson that was seen as damning, but forgiveness was in short supply for a team whose only success this campaign has been in avoiding relegation.
Mike Riley, chairman of the Hibs supporters club, uttered few words on the return leg from Hampden, but he said of the defeat: “I have been to five cup finals, including replays, watching Hibs and this is the hardest one to take. Undoubtedly, this is the worst one.”
Given the team’s cup final paralysis, no-one would lay the blame solely at the door of whistler Craig Thomson – or, intriguingly, manager Pat Felon, who later apologised for his side’s inept showing – but it was felt that the key decisions, including a possible sending off for combative Hearts midfielder Ian Black, had failed to go their way.
The contrast from the outward journey could not have been starker – confident Hibbies full of beans, breakfast rolls and expectation boarded fleets of coaches on Easter Road.
Banging windows and flashing hand gestures at passing Jambos, the mood was vibrant and heightened by sing-a-longs to rousing anthems blasting from scratchy speakers.
Waking early that morning Mr Riley had played a medley of Hibs standards, which caused him to well up. While filling in forms for the buses, he delighted in asking passing Hibbies what the date was – as if any of them didn’t know.
A dad and young son, both wrapped in Hibs scarves, had been perusing a gallery of hazy black and white photographs chronicling Hibs past successes before the buses arrived.
“That’s Pat Stanton there, and that’s Eddie Turnbull . . .” his father instructed the lad while pointing to a series of images on the wall of the Hibernian Supporters Club.
“These pictures were taken decades ago, but today, this could be our day.”
This game had been a long time coming – 116 years in the making – and the stakes could not have been higher.
There was belief rather than hope, despite Hearts billing as clear favourites. This was the chance to wipe clean a slate that had been accruing tallies for 110 years – the cornerstone of so many taunts in their rival’s songsheet.
But the Hibs anthems that lifted spirits, reminding passengers on board of past heroes and glories, were silenced on the return home.
Veteran supporter William McFarlane, 41, a boisterous, lively and quick-witted character with a knack for geeing up fellow supporters, could scarcely respond to the ramblings of the chatty coach driver with whom he had shared a few laughs just hours before.
Someone asked: “Billy, are you heading back to the club?”
“Aye,” came the reply before he returned his gaze to the tarmac road.
Ahead, the sheer number of green and white scarves fluttering from car windows, as well as several coaches laden with Hibs fans bound for Easter Road, told the sad story of their grand day out.
Hibs may have lost the “most important match in both clubs’ history”, but at least their fans won the race back to the Capital.