League Cup final: Ivan Sproule back with Hibs leprechaun hat

Ivan Sproule, with his leprechaun hat, after Hibs' League Cup triumph in 2007. Pic: SNS
Ivan Sproule, with his leprechaun hat, after Hibs' League Cup triumph in 2007. Pic: SNS
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Mention Sunday March 18, 2007 to any Hibs fan and it will immediately conjure up a myriad of iconic Hampden images.

Captain Rob Jones throwing himself through the snow to power home the header to send the Easter Road club on their way to League Cup glory and a 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock.

The Hibs team line up with the League Cup trophy. Pic: SNS

The Hibs team line up with the League Cup trophy. Pic: SNS

Moroccan duo Abdessalam Benjeloun and Merouane Zemmama cavorting about the pitch, each sporting a fez on their heads and clutching their national flag, Guillaume Beuzelin looking suitably resplendent in a “see-you-Jimmy hat”, boss John Collins wiping a tear from his eye and, of course, an emotional rendition of Sunshine on Leith sung by 30,000 or so Hibs fans.

And then there was Ivan Sproule, the little man who had been plucked from the obscurity of football in Northern Ireland to become a supporters’ favourite in Edinburgh, enjoying his own Irish jig, complete with a leprechaun’s hat.

This weekend, that same hat will be dusted down and donned again as Sproule heads for Hampden to see two of his former clubs fight out this season’s League Cup final, his memories of his time with Ross County eclipsed by those still vivid in his memory of how a £5000 move from part-time football in his homeland to Easter Road transformed his life.

Accompanying him will be the same family members who crossed the Irish Sea back then to watch him play his part in helping Hibs lift their first trophy in 16 years.

Moroccan duo Abdessalam Benjelloun and Merouane Zemmama party with Guillaume Beuzelin and kitman Tam McCourt. Pic: SNS

Moroccan duo Abdessalam Benjelloun and Merouane Zemmama party with Guillaume Beuzelin and kitman Tam McCourt. Pic: SNS

Sproule, who went on to play international football with Northern Ireland thanks to his performances for Hibs, recalled: “That day was probably one of the biggest highlights of my career. From where I had come from to being out there listening to thousands of Hibs fans singing Sunshine on Leith, the hairs on the back of you neck standing up, knowing you had given them something special will stay with me until the day I pass away.

“There are so many great memories. There was a lot of rehydrating with bottles of champagne on the team coach back through to Edinburgh, then the open-top bus to the ground. At the time my wife and I lived not too far away from Easter Road so I knew a lot of Hibs fans and to look down from that bus and see guys you knew, grown men, standing out on the street crying just made you realise what it meant.

“Then there were thousands more packed inside Easter Road as we took the cup round, all my family at the party afterwards. Memories no-one can take away from you.”

Nine years ago, as was the case this season, Hibs faced St Johnstone in the semi-finals at Tynecastle having knocked Capital rivals Hearts out in the previous round thanks to another Jones goal but, Sproule revealed, he and his team-mates were convinced they were destined for glory.

Lewis Stevenson was man-of-the-match in 2007 and Sproule would love to see him lift the League Cup again. Pic: SNS

Lewis Stevenson was man-of-the-match in 2007 and Sproule would love to see him lift the League Cup again. Pic: SNS

He said: “We had a really strong side and there was a belief in the squad at the time that we were going to win something sooner or later. But it’s one thing having a good team and not winning anything, that counts for nothing.

“St Johnstone gave us a really tough game in the semi, but if you are going to win a cup you are going to be pushed to the limit. But before the final we just knew we were going to win. We were full of confidence, had the right blend of youth and experience.”

In that regard, the current Hibs side, under the guidance of head coach Alan Stubbs, has many of those same attributes, a confidence despite recent league defeats and a belief among a bunch of young players that on their day they are as good as anyone, a point they’ve proved on their way to Hampden with victories over Premiership sides Aberdeen, Dundee United and Saints.

Sproule, now 35 and back home working again as an engineer but still playing with Ballinamallard United and coaching, said: “I think the current players have proved they are a good team. They’d maybe experienced a wee drop in form. Perhaps the cup final has been on their minds, I don’t know, but they’ve played some terrific football.

“They’ve a good young squad, players like Jason Cummings, Liam Henderson and John McGinn, while Anthony Stokes will be a good signing. Alan Stubbs has done a fantastic job and it would be a real coup. As a football player you want to push yourself, to test yourself against the best, to prove your worth to your club.

“I think Stubbs’ players have done that. They’ve had some fantastic results in this cup run.

“It’s great to see Lewis Stevenson still there and racking up more than 300 games for the club. He was just a wee boy in 2007, but he was outstanding that day and rightly the man of the match. I remember BBC Scotland Radio’s Chic Young calling Lewis over for an interview at the end. Lewis thought he’d made a mistake, that he wanted someone else, but that’s just him, he’d be the last to think he was the best player on the day.

“I’d love to see him get another winner’s medal. He’s given everything he has to the club. He’s been there when times haven’t been so good and deserves a bit more success. There’s so many managers who have come and gone and yet every one of them has seen something in him they have liked. That’s great credit to him not only as a player but as a person. What an achievement it would be to get another medal.”

However, Sproule believes Ross County present a real danger to Hibs’ hopes, delighted to see Staggies boss Jim McIntyre take the small Dingwall club into fourth place in the Premiership.

He said: “There’s a quality within the squad, just as there was when I was there. It was heart-wrenching to leave Hibs, but I had to play football. I have fond memories of Ross County. Dingwall is a small town, but the people are close to the club and I saw that when I was up there, 
the bond between players, the coaching staff and the fans.

“I went there in the January when they were fighting relegation, but we won nine or ten on the bounce and finished fourth or fifth. I think in the past County have perhaps struggled in getting the right mix of players but Jim has come in with his own philosophy, has been left to do his own thing and they are being rewarded for that at the minute.

“I think they will be the biggest challenge for Hibs – but that’s what you would expect in a cup final.”

Sproule isn’t afraid to admit where his allegiances will lie this weekend, revealing he’s already been on to former team-mate Scott Brown to ask the Celtic captain to let him know which other ex-players he can hope to bump into this weekend.

He said: “When I saw Hibs on their way I decided I was coming over. I’ve got a game on Saturday but I’ll fly over that night, stay in Glasgow and then come over the Edinburgh after the game – hopefully I can wangle an invite to the party!

“Ross County mean a lot, but Hibs got under my skin. They’re my club and always will be. And, yes, I’ll be looking out that leprechaun hat ready for Sunday.”