It was a sight Lewis Stevenson never thought he would see repeated, Hibs fans packed to the rafters in three stands at Tynecastle with no Hearts fan anywhere to be seen.
But, on Saturday, he’ll be confronted with exactly the same scenario as Hibs cross the city to face St Johnstone in the semi-final of the League Cup. And, in an extraordinary twist of fate, Saints were the opposition almost exactly nine years ago, the last time Hibs reached the penultimate round of the competition.
Back then, Stevenson was a callow youth, the semi-final on January 31, 2007, coming just 26 days after his 19th birthday, his appearance in the second half as he replaced Dean Shiels only his ninth in the green and white and the first time he had experienced a full house at Tynecastle.
On Saturday, he’ll do so as Hibs’ longest-serving player, the only survivor from that day and one now approaching a milestone 300th game for the club.
He recalled: “I’d played youth cup games and the like there but to be at Tynecastle for such a game and to find three-quarters of the ground filled with our supporters was incredible. I was just a young boy breaking into the side and it was one of my first appearances – I was kind of thrown in at the deep end.
“Obviously, I’ve been back there many times since but that was a scene I never thought I’d see again but it’s funny how football works out. It’s the semi-final of the League Cup, it’s at Tynecastle, it’s St Johnstone again and our fans will be filling three of the four stands.
“It seems so long ago and I suppose it is but I still have happy memories of that night. It was a good game and a tremendous atmosphere.”
Stevenson came on expecting to play the final half-hour, Steven Fletcher having fired Hibs ahead with only three minutes on the clock only for Jason Scotland to equalise and force the game into extra-time.
But David Murphy put John Collins’ side ahead just two minutes into that period and Abdessalam Benjelloun clinched their place in the final with a third in the dying seconds, Hibs going on to hammer Kilmarnock 5-1 in the final with Stevenson named man of the match as an emotional rendition of Sunshine on Leith echoed around Hampden.
Stevenson said: “We were flying at the time and had knocked Aberdeen out of the Scottish Cup just a couple of weeks earlier but Jason Scotland’s goal obviously gave them hope. However, Murph’s goal so soon into extra-time calmed everyone down and then Benji clinched it right at the death.
“I’d come on to play at left back with Murph moving to left midfield and it was a switch which worked out well.”
The tables are turned this time round, however, with St Johnstone, then a Division One club, now in the Premiership while Hibs find themselves battling to get out of the second tier of Scottish football, a fact which makes the McDiarmid Park club favourites to make the final to face either Celtic or Ross County.
Stevenson agrees with such an assessment, but pointed out Hibs have already knocked out two top-flight clubs so far, beating Aberdeen, then top of the Premiership, 2-0 and going on to beat Dundee United in the quarter-finals. To date, Alan Stubbs’ side have not conceded a goal in the competition, beating Montrose 3-0 and then Stranraer 1-0, leaving Stevenson and his team-mates well aware that, if they can rack up a fifth consecutive clean sheet they’ll probably be heading for Hampden on Sunday, March 13.
But they are equally conscious of the fact they face a tough task against the Perth side, where Stevenson spent three years training as a youngster, even if Tommy Wright’s team haven’t won in six matches and scored just once in losing 3-1 to Celtic in the east end of Glasgow at the weekend.
Even so, Saints remain in the top half of the Premiership and Stevenson insisted they pack plenty of potential problems.
He said: “I was with Saints from the age of 12 to 15, training two nights a week. They had a decent team at the time and I have fond memories as I enjoyed it.
“We know Saturday is going to be a tough game because St Johnstone have good players. They’ve consistently been in the top six in recent seasons and have played in the Europa League these past four years so they have plenty of experience on top of that.
“And there’s a couple of familiar figures in David Wotherspoon and Liam Craig who, as former Hibs players, will be relishing playing against us.
“But we can take confidence from having already beaten two Premiership clubs so far. Aberdeen were the in-form team when we beat them although we rode our luck a bit at time and then we did well against Dundee United. We haven’t lost a goal either, we’ve been pretty good defensively all season and hopefully we can keep that going this weekend. Obviously, things are a bit different now to all those years ago with Saints in the Premiership and us in the Championship but I’d happily take a repeat of that result, or any kind of win.”
Stevenson believes he and his team-mates will go into the game with confidence raised following a comfortable 3-1 win against St Mirren, a game in which he feels they looked more like their old selves and now with the added threat of Anthony Stokes who marked his return to Easter Road with Hibs’ third goal.
The 28-year-old said: “We’ve come through a wee bit of a sticky patch but not only did we win against St Mirren we put in a decent performance which would have sent most fans home happy. There could have been more goals, they had a couple of unbelievable blocks on the line but while we perhaps could have been more ruthless we were creating chances. It didn’t take Stokesy long to get his goal but I thought he was good when he came on with his link-up play and I’m sure he will go on to score a few more goals.”
In another of those twists of fate which football throws up, Hibs will head to Tynecastle seven days later to take on their arch-rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup, Stevenson joking he wished his side’s supporters could again enjoy filling three stands but insisting he’ll relish the unique atmosphere of the Gorgie ground.
He said: “It’s a great atmosphere and having the majority of the fans against you can help, it can give you that under-dog feeling and the desire to ‘show them’. At the moment, though, all we are focused on is this Saturday. It’s been a while coming but, to be honest, we only started thinking about it after the St Mirren match. The games have been coming thick and fast and our minds have been on them but I am sure we’ll work hard this week and the manager and his coaching staff will give us all we need to know and come up with the game plan which, hopefully, will take us through to the final.”