Eddie MALONE reckons Ayr United will be taking a leap into the unknown when Hibs arrive at Somerset Park on Saturday – because they know next to nothing about the new-look Easter Road side put together by Pat Fenlon.
Rather than the SPL stars being familiar figures, such has been the winter revolution conducted by Fenlon even Malone, himself a Hibs fan, confesses to only having a sketchy idea as to who is who in a green and white shirt.
And if he’s pretty hazy then the defender is convinced the rest of his First Division team-mates will be virtually clueless as they line up for the start of the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final hoping for a repeat of last year’s giantkilling act when they sent Hibs crashing out of the competition.
He said: “I played with Leigh Griffiths at Dundee so I know him reasonably well, that he’s quite quick, has a good touch and likes to run in behind so he’s one we’ll have to keep an eye on.
“I’ve also been impressed by Isaiah Osbourne, a box-to-box player who likes to drive forward. But there have been so many changes in the past few weeks it’s hard to keep track of who is who. I haven’t managed to get along to Easter Road but I do watch the highlights of Hibs matches on television so I do know a little bit about them.
“But as for the rest of my team-mates, I don’t know. Last year we knew most of the guys playing for Hibs, this time round we don’t know too much.
“I’m not even sure how much Brian Reid [Ayr’s manager] has seen of Hibs because both teams have been playing on Saturdays. We’ve had a couple of midweek matches and we know Pat Fenlon was at Somerset Park to watch us beat Falkirk in the last round and I’m sure he’ll have been back to watch us again.”
If mention of Somerset Park brings back haunting memories for the Hibs support as they recall how a Mark Roberts goal was enough to end their cup dreams for another year, Malone believes the fact Fenlon has made so many changes – eight arrivals in all during the January transfer window – means that shock won’t be weighing so heavily on the minds of the players themselves as they head for the Ayrshire coast.
In fact, only Paul Hanlon from the side which started that night last January is likely to feature this time round, a measure of the whirlwind which has whipped through Easter Road in the intervening months, first under Colin Calderwood and now Fenlon.
Malone said: “It’s a totally different Hibs team and because of that I don’t think there will be any fear factor because these players weren’t involved last year, they’ll be going to Ayr without any bad memories of the place.
“Regardless of what happened last year, Hibs will be the favourites again this time.”
Having said that, though, Malone is well aware that no team travels to Somerset Park on cup dut without concern, Ayr having beaten Inverness Caley, Hearts and St Mirren already this season on their way to the semi-final of the Scottish Communities League Cup.
The big day out at Hampden ended in a 1-0 defeat by arch-rivals Kilmarnock, but Malone insisted another trip to the national stadium is very much in his sights, even if it brings the wrath of his family upon him again.
Emotions were mixed when Ayr forced a replay with a no-scoring draw at Easter Road, his father Tony having led a band of some 30 friends and relatives as they paid top dollar to enjoy matchday hospitality.
But, he revealed, the reception was decidedly frostier when he reported for work at the family firm Malone’s Meats after Mark Roberts’ goal was enough to, as Calderwood admitted afterwards, to plunge Hibs into “the depths of despair”.
He said: “I think after the first game they were quite happy for me although they weren’t relishing a replay at Somerset Park. They felt Hibs had missed their chance and were worried at the potential for an upset.
“The television people obviously felt the same way as the replay was shown live. I went to work the next day and although everyone was saying ‘well done”, it was very much through gritted teeth.
“Even although we’d drawn at Easter Road, I think we still felt Hibs were favourites again. We didn’t think they could be any poorer than they had been in the first game.
“To be fair, we rode out luck a bit. John Rankin had a great opportunity early on and then we went up the other end and scored. Hibs had a few good chances and were probably the better team while our goalkeeper David Crawford pulled off great saves from the likes of Derek Riordan and Colin Nish.
“Going into the last 20 minutes Hibs started rushing things a bit, playing long balls into our box but we defended well, heading the ball away, blocking shots, getting our tackles in as well as those saves and we started to think we were in with a great chance.
“Yes, we had that little bit of luck but that’s what you need in a cup tie.”
Like Hibs, Ayr, having won promotion last summer, have found life a touch difficult this season as they bid to retain their place in the First Division but as things have begun to look up for the Edinburgh side in recent weeks so, too, have Malone and his team-mates hit a bit of form.
Wins over Falkirk and Livingston over the course of the past few days send them into Saturday’s match with renewed confidence and Malone believes Saturday’s clash could provide a welcome distraction for both clubs.
He said: “Our aim this season has simply been to stay up, going back down would probably mean budget cuts and people losing their jobs so that’s always at the back of the mind.
“But we’ve picked up points in recent weeks, we’re now third bottom and have a bit of a cushion over Queen of the South in much the same way Hibs have opened up a bit of a gap on Dunfermline in the SPL.
“Somerset Park will also be a change of scenery for Hibs, something different. Hibs have sold all their tickets so, with everyone standing, it will be a great Cup tie atmosphere.”