It IS the first rule of any dressing-room. Whatever goes on within those four walls remains there. But today Hibs skipper James McPake admitted he wished there had been a “fly-on-the-wall” camera to capture what happened in that inner sanctum at Hampden during those 15 half-time minutes against Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi-final.
Three down to the First Division outfit, McPake and his team-mates faced another humiliation at the national stadium, the bitter memory of what had happened there only 11 months earlier enough to drive a good number of the 17,000 army of Hibs fans which had made the journey along the M8 towards the exits. A match which, given Pat Fenlon’s players had already knocked out Scottish Cup holders Hearts, so gaining at least a modicum of retribution for that 5-1 embarrassment, and then SPL rivals Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, was turning into yet another nightmare.
But, as he looked forward to Sunday’s final, McPake insisted those precious few minutes outwith the gaze of anyone else epitomised the difference between last season’s meek capitulation and the steely determination with which Hibs will confront champions Celtic as, once again, the Capital side attempt to end their cup hoodoo.
The captain said: “It wasn’t a case of us not having got started, I don’t think we’d even got off the bus. Falkirk absolutely blitzed us. By half-time we were shocked to say the least, Falkirk were three goals in front and it could have been more. I actually wish we had a video camera in the dressing-room. The manager did not need to speak for probably the best part of eight to ten minutes. It was just the players having a go at each other.
“Not grabbing each other by the throat and threatening to hit each other, just saying ‘this is what you are not doing’, players and big players at the club, senior players taking it off the young boys as well. Taking it on the chin and that, I think, is why the manager sat and did not say much.
“It was refreshing for him and he might have sensed at the time, maybe not thinking we were going to go on and get the result, but he knew that we knew it was not good enough, that we were going to go out and redeem ourselves in any way we could.
“That would not have happened last year. There was no-one [apart from himself] with a voice, in my opinion, when the chips were down who was going to get in people’s faces and say ‘this is what you should be doing, this is what the problem is’. There’s plenty of that now. Even in training that’s happening every day now.”
What happened during those second 45 minutes and the extra-time which followed has, of course, gone down as one of the greatest fightbacks seen in the Scottish Cup, 18-year- old Alex Harris giving Hibs hope before Leigh Griffiths, Eoin Doyle and Griffiths again secured back-to-back finals for the Easter Road club for only the second time in their history.
Circumstances today are different to last year, Hibs having gone into the final against their arch-rivals with their SPL status secured in the penultimate game of the season, this time round they approach Hampden in more buoyant mood having clinched seventh place with three successive wins against Hearts once more, and Kilmarnock and Dundee.
However, McPake readily concedes those victories were achieved over sides in the bottom six and hardly points to a Hibs triumph against a Celtic team which is clearly the best in the country and one which is capable of punishing the slightest mistake or slackness. “I don’t think it’s going to be any easier because we have won these three games,” he said. “I don’t think it changes anything apart from it gives us confidence compared to last season when people were scared to make mistakes because we were very close to going to Division One.
“That did not happen this season. You could see the team playing with a bit of freedom that, I think, you always get at the end of the season when you are not involved in a relegation battle. There was also the added incentive of cup final places so I think that’s why you see the level of performance is good. It’s refreshing and something I am sure the manager is delighted with.”
There’s little doubt that while today’s Hibs still have their flaws, there have been signs of progress, the seventh-place finish, while lower than that which was targeted, higher than in the previous two seasons as was the points total achieved.
To that end, McPake insisted, much of the credit goes down to Fenlon. He said: “When I sat down with the manager within two or three days after last year’s cup final, he said there were a few changes he wanted to make, that the club was not doing what it should be doing.
“He is making these changes, there’s a different mentality, a more hard-working mentality about the place. There’s a bit of steel about us as I think we saw in the semi-final for example. Had we been 3-0 down last season I would guarantee you we’d have been beaten by five or six. We’ve managed to turn that around this season and I think that’s the difference.”
Having replaced Colin Calderwood, Fenlon’s over- riding remit last season was simply to ensure Hibs remained in Scottish football’s top flight, that necessity prompting him to bring in a raft of players – including McPake – on loan during the January transfer window, only for them to find themselves embroiled in the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in 116 years.
Some argue that having so many without strong ties to the Easter Road club was behind that unforgettable hammering, but McPake doesn’t subscribe to that train of thought. He said: “Last season the manager came in and his job was to keep us in the SPL.
“He did it. It took us to the second last game but he did the job and he got us to the cup final which was a bonus which ended terribly. Again, though, that wasn’t his fault. We never played on the day. There were 11 of us on that pitch that could have affected that game, not him. But I think a lot of what has happened since goes to him and the people he has brought in, the characters he’s brought in. Ben Williams, for example. Every time he speaks in the dressing-room he commands respect, Kevin Thomson coming back, another leader. There are people like that in our dressing-room where maybe that was lacking.
“It’s easier to do when you are not struggling. I think when you are struggling a bit people go into their shell and if you are not playing well – and especially if you are fighting a relegation battle – people will fear making mistakes and if you are the one to give out orders you are slightly reluctant to do that.”
McPake, though, admitted he was still struggling to identify just what went wrong against Hearts, but insisted the number of loan players, of which he was one at the time, wasn’t the root of the problem.
He said: “In your career you look back on the things you have done, the medals, the finals you have got to, qualifying for Europe. No-one in that dressing-room didn’t want to win the cup or did not understand the importance of it to this club. I don’t think it would have helped were there 11 die-hard Hibs fans in the team.
“I wish I could give answers, but now I’m not even looking for answers. It’s something that crops up, but it’s in the past. This is another final to look forward to and, hopefully, a different outcome.”