“Bring on the Jambos,” chanted the small knot of Hibs fans who had made the long journey to Inverness, their minds clearly on Hampden rather than events at the Caledonian Stadium.
The first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in 116 years has, of course, been bubbling away in the background for a few weeks now, Hibs boss Pat Fenlon battling to keep his side’s focus on League business as they fought for SPL survival.
But he had no hope at all of keeping Saturday’s showdown between the Capital’s big two on the backburner once the Easter Road outfit had achieved their objective of retaining their place in the top flight. That goal was achieved in some style, a 4-0 crushing of relegation rivals Dunfermline, rendering the long trip up the A9 for the final League game of the season somewhat irrelevant.
At least it appeared to be so in the eyes of those supporters who had journeyed to the banks of the Moray Firth, little caring about the final outcome, their thoughts firmly fixed on Saturday and the derby to end all derbies.
For Fenlon and those who hauled on a green and white shirt, though, these 90 minutes were hugely relevant, a last opportunity for some to force their way into the manager’s thinking for the game that no-one wants to miss.
Perhaps, like the fans, the minds of some of those out there on the pitch had also wandered to other, more important, things, Hibs going into this match with the faintest of hopes of ousting Terry Butcher’s side from tenth position if only they could score enough goals, but, in the end, producing a performance which winger Ivan Sproule branded “unacceptable.”
Given that Fenlon, having hinted at making a few alterations with half-an-eye on Hampden but “nothing drastic,” had opted for eight changes following the win against the Pars, there was an explanation of sorts for an insipid display.
Sproule, however, begged to differ, insisting that was no excuse and questioning just how many had given their manager any food for thought as his squad headed for their Dublin training base.
Speaking candidly, Sproule said: “It was a disappointing performance, the team, including myself, were people trying to play for places in the squad but we were second best to Caley.
“I think the general feeling was we let the gaffer and the fans who travelled down a bit. Perhaps the Cup final was at the back of people’s minds, but at the end of the day that still isn’t an excuse. I have to apologise to the supporters because it was not good enough and, to be honest, we were a wee bit embarrassed, it wasn’t an acceptable performance from us.”
After those back-to-back wins over Aberdeen and Dunfermline, Hibs needed a winning margin of at least three goals to leapfrog Caley, but never looked like doing so. A George Francomb drive which Caley goalkeeper Ryan Esson pushed aside was the closest they came to scoring even one although, to be fair, the Highland side weren’t much better, failing to trouble rookie Hibs goalkeeper Paul Grant.
If the 19-year-old took to the field anticipating Caley testing him from the off, then he’d have been sorely disappointed, the opening 45 minutes of his debut passing off without incident.
The second half looked like continuing in similar vein until David Stephens’ rash challenge on Jonny Hayes allowed Greg Tansey to curl a superb free-kick beyond Grant from 25 yards. His shot didn’t appear to have much pace but it was precisely placed.
One goal would probably have been enough given Hibs inability to carve out scoring opportunities, the planned switch of Leigh Griffiths for Garry O’Connor at half-time to give both strikers some action bringing little change on that front.
But Caley wrapped things up with a Hayes penalty, referee John Beaton, a late replacement for Edinburgh’s Crawford Allan, pointing to the spot after defender Matt Doherty had succeeded only in heading a cross onto his own hand. A bit harsh but the correct decision.
Sproule admitted Fenlon’s side should have shown more than they did, insisting: “It was the last game of the season and we have a massive game this week but at the same time we wanted to show a bit more fight, a bit more determination.
“The general feeling is disappointment and that will linger for a couple of days. But we won’t let it roll onto this weekend. We’ve a big week ahead of us to prepare. The gaffer rested a few at Inverness so there’s a lot of fresh guys to come in and it will set us up for Hampden.
“No-one wanted to pick up knocks, the final would have been a massive game to miss but for me this was a disappointing way to end the season. It’s been a long season in the League, not good enough to be honest and I am just glad to see the back of it and look to be ready for next season.
“This was another below par performance from a Hibs team and we should be doing better.”
And now, Sproule admitted, there will be a few nervous individuals as they wait for Fenlon to name his side to face Hearts and the five who will sit on the bench.
He said: “I’ve played all season long, I’ve played in most of the Cup games as well but in the last three I have found myself on the bench. It’s been frustrating because I feel I have played my part in the Cup run and to miss the Cup final would be a major disappointment.
“But that’s football. All I can do is get a good week’s training behind me and work as hard as I can and hope that carries me through. The gaffer will have a headache picking his team.”
Sproule, though, won’t be alone in living on his nerves over the course of the next few days with the likes of Mark Brown, James McPake, Paul Hanlon, Pa Kujabi, Lewis Stevenson, Jorge Claros and Isaiah Osbourne all back in the reckoning after being rested for this one.
The return of club skipper Ian Murray, playing his first match since January 2 following a hip operation, will only add to Fenlon’s conundrum. The utility man, deployed as a sitting midfielder, tired noticeably although that had to be expected after such a long lay off but while Fenlon insists he won’t pick his team – and bench – on sentiment the 31-year-old won’t but wonder if his ability to cover anywhere across the back or middle of the park allied to his experience might just see him as one of the substitutes.
Plenty for Fenlon to ponder, but the one thing he’ll be grateful for is, barring goalkeeper Graham Stack’s thigh injury, a clean bill of health for his squad.