Hibs 2016 review: Players carve their names in history

David Gray, scorer of the winning goal against Rangers, lifts the Scottish Cup

David Gray, scorer of the winning goal against Rangers, lifts the Scottish Cup

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It was the hardy annual asked of every Hibs manager. Could this be the year the club’s ever-lengthening wait for the Scottish Cup is finally brought to an end?

Alan Stubbs, of course, had heard it the previous year, and like all his predecessors, he delivered the predictable reply: “Why not?” As if he was going to say anything different. Given, however, that the time which had elapsed since Bobby Atherton had become the last Hibs captain to lift the trophy had stretched, agonisingly, to 114 years, it was probably said more in hope than expectation.

Alan Stubbs,, left, and his assistant John Doolan, flank Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart. Stubbs was sacked after just 14 games

Alan Stubbs,, left, and his assistant John Doolan, flank Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart. Stubbs was sacked after just 14 games

It had, after all, eluded such revered teams such as the Famous Five and Turnbull’s Tornadoes so why should 2016 – with Hibs languishing in the Championship for a second year – end a record which had brought such joy to the other half of Edinburgh, something with which the Hearts support had mercilessly taunted their rival fans.

Stubbs and his players were probably unaware when they crossed the Forth to face Raith Rovers at the start of their latest attempt to land the “Holy Grail” that the sides who had beaten the Kirkcaldy club in the previous two years, Inverness Caley and St Johnstone, had gone on to win the cup. But, nevertheless, could it be an omen?

Goals from Darren McGregor, Hibs’ 1000th in the Cup, and Dominique Malonga, the enigmatic Frenchman’s last for the club, nurtured such a notion but it appeared ill-placed as the draw sent Stubbs’ side to Tynecastle to face a Hearts team riding high in the Premiership. It looked to be all over when, despite being the better team, Hibs found themselves two goals down with only ten minutes to play.

But, incredibly, Jason Cummings and then Paul Hanlon scored in a sensational finale in which Kevin Thomson knocked a Blazej Augustyn effort off his own line and Niklas Gunnarsson sliced the ball on to Mark Oxley’s crossbar to force a replay at Easter Road a few days later. Hibs may again have rode their luck on the night but Cummings, the kid released by Hearts, scored in his fourth derby in succession.

Neil Lennon was tasked with winning promotion for Hibs

Neil Lennon was tasked with winning promotion for Hibs

Perhaps, just perhaps, that was the night everyone started believing only for Caley, the holders, to be put in their way. Again, Hibs had to do it the hard way, facing a replay in Inverness only days after they’d suffered the heartbreak of losing the League Cup final to Ross County.

Two goals from Anthony Stokes had Hibs dreaming again, the Celtic striker brought back for a second time on loan and, if truth be told, he’d hardly lived up to expectations, those his first in nine games having scored in each of his first two matches.

A bizarre booking for Oxley, who had lost a contact lens but was “done” by referee Stephen Finnie for timewasting, left Stubbs in a quandary, the goalkeeper suspended for the semi-final with Finnish Under-21 internationalist Otso Virtanen having looked less than convincing in the few minutes he’d played in that game.

In came Conrad Logan, an Irish goalkeeper who hadn’t played in more than a year after snapping his Achilles’ tendon, someone who had only a couple of training sessions under his belt and who believed he would be sitting on the bench at Hampden as Hibs tried for a return to the national stadium at the expense of Dundee United.

Stubbs, however, decided to throw him straight in even if the sight of Logan in that figure-hugging green top made, well, let’s be charitable, a few of us feel a little bit better about our own body shapes. But Logan proved to be the hero of the hour, pulling off a string of saves as Cummings missed a penalty to put Hibs ahead before the keeper wrote his name all over the Sunday back pages by stopping United’s first two attempts in the shoot-out leaving Cummings to step up and clinch a place in the final against Rangers.

By the time those two rivals faced up at Hampden, little love having apparently been lost between Stubbs and his opposite number Mark Warburton, Hibs already knew they’d been consigned to a third year in the Championship, losing the play-off final to Falkirk – while Rangers had been promoted as champions.

Again, though, the Hibs players dug deep, Stokes proving he was the man for the big occasion by firing Hibs into an early lead before Kenny Miller equalised, the dream beginning to fade again as Andy Halliday put Rangers ahead only for the Capital side, as they had done at Tynecastle, to mount a breathtaking fightback, Stokes heading home a Liam Henderson corner before the on-loan Celtic midfielder supplied another for skipper David Gray to nod beyond Wes Foderingham in the 90th minute.

Finally, it was over and thousands of Hibs fans flooded on to the pitch, initially in exuberance although some went on to goad the Rangers support, provoking a reaction which saw some of their support retaliate, resulting in unsavoury scenes which to this day are throwing up arrests as Police Scotland continue to investigate.

Nothing, though, could take away from the scenes the following day, more than 150,000 taking to the streets of Edinburgh as the cup was paraded from the City Chambers to Leith Links, a “mindblowing” experience said Stubbs, for one and all who had been on the upper deck of that open top bus.

Winning the Scottish Cup did, of course, overshadow everything that happened in the past 12 months but, it shouldn’t be forgotten, that second shot at promotion was missed, a punishing schedule of games taking its toll although Hibs had gone into the year just three points behind Rangers, a 4-2 defeat at home by Warburton’s side in their final game of 2015 their only loss in 18 games.

But the title finally slipped away in an astonishing six days at the end of February. Hibs, who by then had lost just once in 28 matches, beaten three times – by Morton, Dumbarton and Queen of the South – in quick succession.

Promotion or the Cup? It’s a question which continues to exercise minds, pragmatists arguing, quite rightly, that for obvious financial reasons the club needs to be in the top flight only for the more romantic to put forward an equally convincing claim that winning the Cup, particularly in such a dramatic fashion, simply couldn’t be topped.

In a few weeks time Neil Lennon will undoubtedly be asked if Hibs can retain the trophy as they begin this year’s journey against Junior champions Bonnyrigg Rose. The Irishman replaced Stubbs, who surprisingly quit Edinburgh only days after that epic May 21 to become manager of English Championship side Rotherham, his ill-fated stay lasting only 14 games before he was sacked. Lennon will no doubt reply there’s little reason why not but this time round promotion and promotion alone has to be the focus.

Having been tipped to romp away with the Championship title by Christmas, it’s obvious it’s going to be a much tougher fight than suggested with Hibs, who won their opening five games, being toppled from the top by Dundee United at the halfway stage. No cause of panic by any means, particularly with key players such as John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie out injured. However, with a budget which has allowed him to bring in the likes of Grant Holt, Andrew Shinnie, Ofir Marciano, Ross Laidlaw, Brian Graham and now Kris Commons on loan from Celtic, Lennon knows winning the Championship come May will be greeted, perhaps not by 150,000 people on the streets, but almost as warmly.