Hibs have won eight of their last ten Scottish Cup ties; a record bettered by no other team and matched only by Celtic over the last two years. They just haven’t managed to negotiate a victory from either of their back-to-back final appearances.
As they prepare to embark once more on that annual mission to end their notorious relationship with the Scottish Cup, which they haven’t won since 1902, the hope for all Hibs fans is that they can replicate their form of the earlier rounds in the past two seasons and then come up against a side they have more chance of beating than they did in the last two seasons. Heavy defeats by Hearts and Celtic in the finals served to tarnish their otherwise impressive Scottish Cup accomplishments under Pat Fenlon.
Terry Butcher, who has only been in the door for two weeks, will be given plenty leeway until he starts to impose his own mark on Hibs, but the significance of Saturday’s hazardous-looking fourth-round trip to Ross County won’t be lost on the new manager. Losing to the Dingwall side in their current Premiership guise wouldn’t prompt anywhere near the same outcry it did when John Hughes’ Hibs team fell at the hands of First Division County some three and a half years ago.
Butcher has time on his side. If he loses, most people will just write it off as “a defeat that shows the size of the task facing him”. Regardless of circumstances, however, being out of the Scottish Cup before Christmas is never good for the morale of any of our country’s bigger clubs, especially not one which could desperately do with banishing an irksome hoodoo.
If Butcher was told he was only allowed to win one of his first five games in charge, it would surely be this Saturday’s. They can recover from a one-off setback in the league; if they lose in the cup, that’s the dream over for another year. Victory in the Highlands would go a long way to maintaining the feelgood factor which has surrounded the club since his unveiling a fortnight ago. And, crucially, if they are to win the old trophy any time soon, then now looks as good a time as any, with Hearts and Rangers, two sides who would usually represent formidable obstacles, both significantly weakened by their financial meltdowns.
The way Rangers are going, they will be a Championship side next season operating with the second-best squad in the country. It seems only a matter of time before they are once again viewed as a genuine major trophy contender, and, in becoming so, they would vastly diminish Hibs’ chances of reaching back-to-back finals again.
The way the draw has panned out, with four all-Premiership ties, at least half of the last-16 contestants will be from outwith the top flight. Opportunity knocks for any top-flight side who can negotiate this week’s ties successfully and subsequently avoid a trip to Celtic Park, assuming the holders beat Hearts, in the next round. By hook or by crook, Butcher could do with negotiating a way past Ross County.
Terry Butcher was right to appoint a new Hibs captain, and that is intended as no criticism of Ben Williams and James McPake, who were both fine ambassadors for the club when they shared the armband during the bulk of Pat Fenlon’s reign.
In a team which possessed no less than half a dozen viable contenders for the captaincy, it made sense to hand someone else the armband, if nothing else, just to give the club a fresher look and stamp Butcher’s mark on his new team as they seek to leave some harrowing memories, namely thrashings by Hearts and Malmo, in the past. Crucially, Liam Craig, the new skipper, has a clean slate.
The nationwide craving for an improved Scotland team means that any youngster who shows a touch of promise is hyped up as a potential saviour for our game. Ryan Gauld, pictured, looks like the most cultured 17-year-old we’ve produced in some time, and is now being linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool. I’ve been banging on in these pages about how, in order to have any chance of a return to a major finals, Scotland needs to have at least a couple of players playing for top clubs in top leagues. Instead of having a raft of players from the likes of Celtic, Norwich, Sunderland, West Brom and Wigan, we need to see at least a couple of Scots make it to the big six in England, or the top clubs in La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A. It may seem a touch on the ambitious side – not to mention harsh to put such pressure on a kid – but young Gauld, if he is indeed the best attacking player we’ve produced in a generation, should be looking to get to the top level at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, the impoverished Scottish Premiership is no environment for potential superstars to be hanging about longer than they have to.