DARREN DODS sat in the Falkirk dressing-room at Hampden, catching his breath and hardly able to believe what had just happened in a stunning first 45 minutes.
Having gone into the Scottish Cup semi-final two years ago as underdogs, the Bairns had run his old club Hibs ragged, goals from Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Blair Alston having already sent scores of Easter Road fans heading for the exits and an early return to Edinburgh.
It was a dream start for new Falkirk boss Gary Holt, appointed just days beforehand while the obituaries were being penned for Hibs manager Pat Fenlon, facing a second humiliation at the national stadium following the previous season’s 5-1 final mauling by Capital rivals Hearts.
Such was the disarray, Fenlon had replaced midfielder Scott Robertson with barely half-an-hour played while Paul Cairney failed to reappear after the interval.
But, although his side appeared to have a place in the final securely in their grip, the veteran defender knew full well that the second half would prove far tougher going than the first, his fears realised as Hibs lifted themselves off the floor and, in one of the greatest comebacks ever seen at Hampden, went on to win 4-3 after extra time.
Today, Dods – now 39 but still playing with League One leaders Forfar – recalled: “We’d hoped as underdogs to get the first goal but we got off to a flying start when Craig scored after just six minutes. Hibs came back at us but we weathered the storm and, when Jay got a second, the plan was to keep it tight to half-time.
“Then Blair scored on the half-hour mark and we actually had the chance to make it four when Lyle Taylor was through only for Ben Williams to make a good save.
“We could hardly believe how well it had gone for us. We knew we were on top but that Hibs would come out fighting knowing they had to go for it and they did that with Alex Harris cutting in from the left to score a great goal just six minutes in. That gave Hibs an obvious lift.”
Nevertheless, Dods admitted he started believing it was Falkirk’s day when Leigh Griffiths missed from the penalty spot – the first time he had ever done so – only for the then on-loan Wolves striker to make it 3-2, with Eoin Doyle grabbing the equaliser to force an extra 30 minutes.
Dods said: “We’d never expected to be in the position we were in but we had put so much into that first half, perhaps young players trying to impress the new manager and we were doing everything we could to make them aware Hibs would come at us.
“When Leigh missed the penalty, I did think it would be our day but whether it’s over 90 minutes or 120, you’ll never keep him completely quiet – particularly in the form he was in at that time.”
And so it proved with Griffiths claiming the winner, Dods recalling: “We thought if we could keep it tight we might take it to a penalty shoot-out but Leigh came up with a great strike although Lyle had a half chance to level it.
“When you look back, we only had one young defender left on the bench, the rest were all attacking players when, possibly, we might have had a couple of extra defenders among the substitutes to help us see the game out. But, as I said, we never thought we’d find ourselves in that sort of position at half-time.
“Hibs had the more experienced players and it told in the end but you had to give Hibs credit for the way they came back.”
Now, two years on, Hibs and Falkirk meet again at the penultimate stage of the competition and, although he expects another tight match, Dods doesn’t envisage a repeat of that seven-goal thriller.
But he does anticipate the Capital club winning again even if the Bairns appear to have the Indian sign over Alan Stubbs players in that they are the only Championship team Hibs haven’t beaten this season. He said: “I don’t think Hibs will be such hot favourites this time given both teams are in the same league and I certainly can’t see another seven goals.
“Although Falkirk have beaten Hibs twice this season and come back from 3-1 down to take a draw at Easter Road, the results suggest there’s little between the teams. I think it will be close, 1-0 or 2-1 but I do expect Hibs to come out on top and without the need for extra time.”
Dods admitted the return of his former team-mate Farid El Alagui after almost seven months out as he recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon had swayed his thinking, saying: “I remember Farid coming to Falkirk. He only scored a couple of goals in his first few games but then he had a great spell where he was getting a goal every week.
“He’s had a tough time of it so it’s great to see him back. He’ll be an important player for Hibs as he’s a difficult forward for defenders to deal with. For his size, he has a really good spring and, as we saw against Hearts at the weekend, he’s a great finisher. The last minute in a derby to clinch the win and he stayed totally composed, waited for Neil Alexander to make his move and then finished with that wee dink over him.
“Scoring such an important goal in only his second game back will have sent his confidence soaring.”
Although only two years have passed since that epic Hampden encounter, both sides have taken on a new look. Paul Hanlon and Robertson remain from Hibs starting line-up that day when Lewis Stevenson was suspended and Danny Handling were on the bench while only Keiran Duffie, Sibbald and Alston are still with Falkirk from the side which started although Tom Taiwo, a second-half substitute for Fenlon, now pulls on the navy blue of the Bairns.
Dods said: “There’s been a big turnover of players, mainly through the changes of manager there’s been at Easter Road while Falkirk have seen a number of the young players they’ve brought through move on, the likes of Stephen Kingsley and Jay Fulton going to Swansea and Conor McGrandles to Norwich.
“But guys like Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston, who are still there have racked up a lot of first-team games despite being so young and they have the experience not only of that 4-3 game but a League Cup semi-final against Celtic at Hampden to call on.”
In contrast, Hibs’ top scorer Jason Cummings will be making his first appearance at the national stadium, an experience Dods doesn’t expect to faze the 19-year-old. He said: “Jason seems to rise to the occasion. He’s scored a couple at Ibrox, he’s scored at Tynecastle and again in Sunday’s derby. These games seem to bring out the best in him.
“The derby win, coming back from losing a few games to beat Dumbarton and then Hearts, having Farid back and Jordon Forster back in the team will give the confidence of everyone at Easter Road a huge lift going into the semi-final.”
• Dods is Darren sure he won’t be hanging up boots at 40
He’s racked up 630 first-team appearances in a career spanning 23 years and turns 40 at the beginning of June, but Darren Dods has no intention of hanging up his boots just yet.
Instead, the veteran defender has his eyes firmly fixed on promotion to the Championship with his current club, Forfar Athletic, topping League One thanks to a run of five straight wins. Dick Campbell’s side enjoy a two-point lead over Stranraer with Morton a further point adrift but, with those sides due to meet at Stair Park a week on Saturday, the door is open for Forfar to take the step up provided, of course, they keep winning.
And the former Hibs player admits the prospect is as exciting now as it would have been at any stage of his remarkable career which has also encompassed spells with St Johnstone, Inverness Caley, Dundee United and Falkirk. He said: “We’ve got three games to go with two of them away, against Peterhead and Dunfermline but, if we come through them, we’ll have a great chance.
“We’ve hit the top just at the right time. We’d been playing catch-up for a couple of months after dropping off to fourth place but we’ve clawed our way back with a great run of results. If we can keep that going and, with Stranraer and Morton still to play each other, we’ll be looking good. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a very exciting end to the season.”
As another campaign comes to a close Dods knows it will draw the inevitable question about his own future and how long he thinks he can continue to play. The answer, though, is simple. “I missed the first game of the season through suspension,” he said, “But I’ve played every one since, 34 games in all. When pre-season comes along, I will give it another go.
“I know the time will come when I’m struggling to find form, when I’ll find myself on the bench as an unused substitute but that day has yet to come. I’ll keep going until my services are no longer required and, in any case, I’m just a youngster compared to Rab Douglas [Forfar’s goalkeeper] – he’s going to be 43 later this month!”