A YEAR ago, Hibs crept out of Hampden, heads bowed, red-faced and with their fans having deserted them – at least on the day – in their droves, that 5-1 hammering by Hearts having left everyone in green and white battered and bruised.
As they made their way home, dispirited and believing their world had all but come to an end, few would have dreamt that just 12 months later, the M8 west would be offering a road to redemption.
It was an opportunity, alas, that Pat Fenlon’s side were unable to grasp, a Scottish Cup final offering once again nothing but pain and sorrow, a enduring hurt for which, it seems, there will never be an end.
This time round, however, the Easter Road players were able to take their leave of the national stadium with their heads held high. They were beaten again, but the ringing endorsement from the 20,000-plus green-and-white army which had followed them to Glasgow showed that they had, unlike last season, done themselves justice.
A 3-0 scoreline sounds pretty emphatic and, if truth be told, Celtic were the better side as their position at the head of the SPL table would suggest, Neil Lennon’s players having regularly handed out such thumpings – and a few far worse – over the course of the season.
But today, as he heads for pastures new at Chesterfield, Hibs striker Eoin Doyle will no doubt be thinking: “What if?” The flame-haired hitman won’t be alone in wondering just what might have happened had his point-blank header been a foot either side of Fraser Forster rather than straight at him. Only six minutes had passed when Doyle rose unopposed to meet Ryan McGivern’s cross, managing to get plenty of power on the ball, but unable to beat the Celtic goalkeeper. Had it gone in, would the final outcome of the match been different?
It is, of course, impossible to say, but in those opening minutes Hibs appeared to have the champions a tad rattled, possibly taken aback by the positive start Fenlon’s players had made, a stark contrast to last season’s showdown against Hearts in which they handed the initiative, and with it the game, to their arch-rivals.
Fenlon had promised his side would “have a go” and they certainly did, the Hibs boss playing the same XI – apart from Doyle replacing Ross Caldwell as a partner for Leigh Griffiths up front – and formation as proved so successful in the final derby of the season, a 4-4-2 with Alex Harris asked to provide width on the right.
In those opening minutes it looked as if it would, once again, prove successful, but within two minutes of Doyle’s chance, Celtic were ahead, the “narrow” nature of Hibs’ midfield offering Mikael Lustig room which he used to deliver a threatening cross with which Alan Maybury made only partial connection, Anthony Stokes chasing the clearance before returning an inch-perfect deep ball which took out both Ben Williams and Paul Hanlon for Gary Hooper to turn into the net.
It was a cruel blow for Hibs, but throughout the season they have looked susceptible to cross balls and it was another wonderful delivery from Stokes, who appears to revel in playing against his old club, which allowed Hooper to rise between Hanlon and McGivern to cleverly head the ball back across Williams for his second goal.
Fenlon said: “We started the really well and missed a chance. Maybe if we score first then it’s a different game, but we conceded a goal quickly and we lost our way a little bit after that. But we came out in the second half and had a go.”
Hibs did so, a Harris cross squeezing through the legs of Kelvin Wilson, only for the defender to retrieve the situation before Griffiths, hampered by a kick to his calf in the first half, could capitalise before Joe Ledley ensured the game was beyond the Edinburgh club, lashing a Lustig cross which had eluded Hooper high into the net.
There was, however, no mass exodus at that point, the Hibs support staying in situ virtually to a man to acclaim their side long after the final whistle had sounded.
It was something not lost on 19-year-old Jordon Forster, playing only his fourth first team match, who had been among those self-same fans a year ago. He said: “Last season was last season, this was this season. We gave a good account of ourselves and I think the fans recognised that.
“They were outstanding, you won’t go to many cup finals and see 90 per cent or so of the fans from the beaten team staying after the final whistle and after the cup has been lifted.”
The defeat does mean, though, that it will now be at least 112 years until Hibs do land the Scottish Cup, a taunt which Forster and his team-mates will hear from Hearts fans in next season’s derbies, but the big youngster adopted a phlegmatic approach as he declared: “We believe we can put it right. It would be a nice thought to think we can be back at Hampden next season.”
It may, of course, have been the bravado of youth following this, the first time Hibs had contested back-to-back finals in 90 years, but Forster pointed to his own experience of just how fickle fate can be in football. An unknown outwith Easter Road only a few weeks ago, the 6ft 2in stopper made his debut in that derby win at Tynecastle, before enjoying wins over Kilmarnock and Dundee, the latest in a string of kids to have broken through this season, Hibs ending this final with four of them, Forster, Harris, Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell on the pitch.
Recognising he had only been offered those opportunities because of skipper James McPake’s back injury, Forster said: “I you had told me three weeks ago all this would happen I wouldn’t have believed you, but football is a funny game and things can happen.
“Obviously I have benefited from James’ injury, but I’d like to think I have taken my chance and put a good marker down.”
Having been out on loan at Berwick Rangers and East Fife, Forster admitted it had been a huge step to be facing the likes of Hooper, Stokes and Georgios Samaras, but, again, he was philosophical. The one-time Celtic youth player said: “It goes without saying we were hoping for a better result, but it’s great experience for me personally.
“Celtic are a great, great team – look at their record in the Champions League and they are Scottish champions for a reason. This was a learning curve for me, but hopefully I can play in more cup finals for Hibs and win them.
“I think big things are coming at Hibs – we’ve got a great mix of youth and experience. We’ve had a disappointing day after a very difficult run to the final, but we’ll be back.”