As far as Hampden is concerned, Ivan Sproule has been there, done it and bought the T-shirt. The Hibs star has enjoyed a bitter-sweet relationship with the national stadium, riding a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from agony to ecstasy.
Defeat by Dundee United in a Scottish Cup semi-final in only his fourth game in a green-and- white shirt, sent off as Hearts crushed Hibs at the penultimate stage the following year and pain again the next year, falling to Dunfermline’s controversial late penalty in a replay.
All most definite lows in the Northern Ireland internationalist’s career, but outweighed by the high of that 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock to lift the CIS Insurance Cup and the memory of riding through the streets of Edinburgh, thronged by jubilant fans, on an open-top bus afterwards.
But today the 31-year-old admitted that none of his past experiences will compare to what lies ahead tomorrow, the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in 116 years, the derby to end all derbies, a match which will send one half of the Capital delirious and the other half into the deepest of despair.
He said: “I’ve been to Hampden quite a few times now. I’ve been beaten in semi-finals, sent off, won a Cup and the last time, of course, we defeated Aberdeen to set up tomorrow’s match. You could say I have the full package.
“However, I don’t think any of it is going to prepare me or any other player for what is about to take place. It’s a massive game for everybody. I’ve been at the club for a while now, I know what it means to so many people, what it means to me and my family. There’s a lot at stake.
“People ask me how great is the intensity between Hibs and Hearts in a Scottish Cup final and I can only say that possibly the recent Manchester derby with the English League title at stake is the only match I can imagine would come close to what’s going to happen tomorrow – the tension, the jubilation, the disappointment people are going to feel.
“For me, it will be the biggest derby in the history of them.”
Tomorrow also gives Sproule an opportunity to gain some revenge for that 4-0 drubbing by Hearts in 2006, the feisty winger enduring his own nightmare as he was red carded for a stamp on Saulius Mikoliunas. Although the record books will forever display the final scoreline, the fact Hibs were missing more than half their team on the day will always be overlooked. With Garry O’Connor having just been sold to Lokomotiv Moscow for £1.7 million, boss Tony Mowbray was also without the suspended Derek Riordan and, through injury, Guillaume Beuzelin, Dean Shiels, Scott Brown, Chris Killen and Michael Stewart.
To this day, Sproule firmly believes the outcome would have been vastly different had Mowbray been able to field a full team. He said: “We had a lot of key players out that day and I still think had we been able to play our strongest eleven we would have beaten Hearts and then given it a real go in the final. What happened with me was a bit of naivety and immaturity. I’ve maybe had a reputation for picking up red and yellow cards, but I would like to think that’s because I am a committed player. I don’t like to lose.”
Defeat was all the more galling because Second Division Gretna awaited in the final, and Hibs defeated Hearts only a few weeks later. Sproule said: “Football gives you that chance to get your demons away. Hearts have had the upper hand for a couple of years now, but that record has to end at some stage. There’s going to be a Hibs team who turn them over, so why not this one?”
While admitting every player involved is likely to suffer a dose of the jitters as they line up in the Hampden tunnel before kick-off, Sproule believes he and his team-mates have shown a resilience over recent months as they’ve battled against the threat of relegation to show they can cope with the occasion.
Given the troubles Hibs have endured – former boss Colin Calderwood sacked as the club sank towards the foot of the SPL table and only securing their survival under new manager Pat Fenlon in the second last game of the season – few would have thought a match such as tomorrow’s would have been on the cards.
Sproule agreed, saying: “It’s been crazy, the way the league has gone. There’s been a mental pressure on every single player in the squad. It’s not been a good year, but you have to commend the players for surviving.
“This is a team that has been kicked and battered and taken a lot of bad press on a weekly basis. We have had to stick together and grind it out. It’s easy when things are not going well for people to point fingers and say that’s not right or he’s not good enough.
“A lot of people had written us off, but we came back fighting. We’ve overcome that and got ourselves to the final. The staff and players have bonded really closely and now we have the chance to have a fantastic end to the season.
“I know some people had been questioning whether the boys who had come in on loan in January could really be fully committed to the cause, but I think they have answered that. We’ve dug in and you have to give credit to every player for the part he has played in a difficult year. And you also have to give credit to the gaffer, Billy Brown, Liam O’Brien, Scott Thomson – in fact, everyone at the club.
“They’ve all played their part. The loan signings have been fantastic, we’ve gelled not just as team-mates but as friends, and some great friendships have been struck up.
“I’m sure if the right offer was made, a few would want to come back to Hibs because, although it has been difficult, they have enjoyed it.
“This is a great club with a great history and the last home game against Dunfermline showed just how big it can be if things are going right.”
While the battle to beat the drop went to the wire, Hibs quietly but effectively negotiated their way through the Cup, surviving a tricky encounter with Second Division leaders Cowdenbeath before eliminating Kilmarnock, Ayr United and the Dons.
Sproule said: “The Cup has been a good distraction, as we’ve had so much pressure in the league. We’ve been able to relax a bit in the one-off games and perhaps played our best football.”
But Sproule insisted he was in no way underestimating the challenge he and his team-mates face. Hearts are favourites not only because they finished the season high above their Capital rivals but, by winning all three derbies, extended their unbeaten run in the fixture to ten.
He said: “We know we are going to be up against a very resilient Hearts side that also want to win the Cup. This is a one-off game and any derby that has gone before won’t be like this one. No matter if Hearts had ten, 20 or 30 games over us, what counts is tomorrow. People can write themselves into the history books by winning it. This is a derby like no other. I’ve played in semi- finals, the CIS final, the play-offs in the English Championship and for my country in European qualifiers, but this brings more pressure than any of them.
“A lot of people have tried to win the Cup for Hibs and never achieved it, and now we are only 90 minutes away from it. The jubilation of winning that Cup will be something no player, no matter what he has won in the past, will ever have experienced.
“I imagine, it will be the exact opposite for the team that loses – a deep, deep pain that will stay with you. But this is why you want to be a football player. It is going to be a special, special day for everyone involved.”