Hibs back to bread and butter after Champagne weekend

Hibs players mob John McGinn after his goal. Pic: SNS
Hibs players mob John McGinn after his goal. Pic: SNS
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Sunday, March 13, and a day out at Hampden will already be heavily ringed in the diary of every Hibs fan.

But as far as Chris Dagnall and his team-mates are concerned, they’ve got a far more pressing engagement in mind – tomorrow night’s Championship clash with Morton at the less salubrious surroundings of Cappielow.

To that end, while most supporters were probably still trying to clear their heads following the celebrations which no doubt took place after Hibs had beaten a third Premiership side to clinch a place in the final of the Utilita League Cup, Alan Stubbs’ players were back at work preparing at their East Mains training centre.

Handshakes and hearty backslaps were about as much as they indulged in within the confines of their Tynecastle dressing-room before thoughts turned to the over-riding priority, gaining promotion to the top flight and chasing down Rangers in the race to the Championship title.

For 29-year-old Dagnall, now looking forward to his first major cup final barely a month after signing on at Easter Road, promotion is just about more important than cup silverware, admitting that while everyone was delighted to make the final, he’d happily take going up to the Premiership over a winners’ medal.

“It would be nice to have a winner’s medal to look back on in years to come, but promotion would obviously be more beneficial to the club,” said Dagnall. “In an ideal world we’d get both, but promotion is more important.”

Hibs do, of course, remain in the hunt for what would, in all honesty, be a most unlikely treble, with a return to Tynecastle on Sunday to face arch-rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup.

While Hearts will no doubt be favourites given the success they have enjoyed since returning to the Premiership, Jambos boss Robbie Neilson – who was in the stand on Saturday to spy on Hibs – will no doubt have taken note of how the Hibees have taken care of Aberdeen, Dundee United and now St Johnstone en route to Hampden, their determination and desire diminished not one jot after Joe Shaughnessy had cancelled out Jason Cummings’ opener only four minutes later.

It was the first goal Hibs had conceded in the competition, victories over Montrose and Stranraer preceding the three big scalps, and not so long ago it would undoubtedly have been of concern to their 12,000 fans packed around three sides of the pitch.

“Bottlers” is a term no player ever likes being accused of and one Stubbs himself admitted he’d have railed at should that ever have been the case, but for a rookie manager who isn’t scared to voice his opinions, he’s happily moulding a squad in his own image.

The head coach said: “Since I’ve been here I can understand that line of questioning. In the past we have been labelled as bottlers, but I think we are breaking barriers, getting that perception changed.

“I was asked that question again before the game. It’s a semi-final, who is going to bottle it? I look at this game and there’s the answer.”

If Stubbs had full trust in his players to deal with any difficult situations on such an occasion, then, revealed Dagnall, so too did the players. He said: “The first thing I was told when I came up here was that this was a club wanting to win cups. I’m just happy for the lads and the club that we have made the final. It’s up there with one of the best days of my career, I’ve never been in a cup final before.

“It’s something to look forward to but, as the gaffer has said, we are in three competitions and we want to do well in all of them. The boss has said all along we are a Premiership club which happens to be in the Championship and I think our record in the League Cup this season backs that up.

“But we have to get back up there, so the celebrations were pretty quiet afterwards. Of course, we were delighted, but we were in yesterday starting to get ready for Morton. We’ve got a lot of big games coming up, so it is exciting times for all of us.”

St Johnstone had approached this match, a repeat of the 2007 semi-final at the same venue where they’d been beaten 3-1 by Hibs, nursing a sense of injustice on a number of levels, unhappy at having been allocated just 3300 tickets leaving them outnumbered almost four-to-one by Hibs fans and furious that a promised further 600 briefs were instead handed over to their rivals.

Perth boss Tommy Wright had also made repeated references to Stubbs’ superior spending power – Dagnall the first of five new arrivals in the lead-up to this match – an issue the Hibs head coach openly acknowledged but one which, nevertheless, is a fact of life in football.

Saints’ grievances grew as Liam Henderson went down under Chris Millar’s challenge, referee Steven McLean having no hesitation in pointing to the spot as the McDiarmid Park players furiously accused the on-loan Celtic midfielder of conning the official.

Stubbs admitted that had it been the other way round he’d have been unhappy after a quick look at TV footage, but pointed out that McLean had been perfectly positioned to make the call, a decision with which Dagnall fully agreed with, saying: “They weren’t happy about it, no team ever is when a penalty is given against them, but I thought it was a penalty and so did the ref.”

Cummings kept his cool to send goalkeeper Alan Mannus the wrong way from the spot to claim his 18th goal of the season, only for Shaughnessy to cut short the celebrations when he expertly looped a header beyond Mark Oxley and into the net.

In the end, however, Wright and his players were forced to concede Hibs had been the better side on the day, although Saints did hit the bar through Simon Lappin before John McGinn, head and shoulders the best player on the pitch, latched onto a loose ball 20 yards out and drilled the winner low into the corner of the net.

Hibs had other chances to kill the game off long before it headed into four nervy minutes of added-on time, Dagnall spinning to fire in a shot which clipped the far post and another which zipped just inches wide.

Dagnall, who is still to find the net for Hibs, said: “I thought I was going to get a goal. It wasn’t to be, but hopefully it will come next week.”

Now, though, it’s back to the bread and butter of the Championship, Stubbs insisting: “We are going to enjoy getting to a final. We are going to enjoy everything about it and we’ll be going there to have a go and to try and win the game.

“But our main focus is to go up this year. Promotion has been, still is, and will be our priority. We won’t be losing track of that.”