FIRST things first. A first win for Terry Butcher as manager of Hibs; a first victory in Dingwall for the new boss and a first triumph against Ross County for the Easter Road club, on both counts at the seventh attempt.
A first goal of the season for Danny Handling, the 19-year-old’s first strike in more than a year and Hibs’ first in 553 minutes of action since Paul Heffernan scored against Celtic in mid-October ending a run of five matches in which they’d drawn a blank.
Plenty, then, to keep even the most fervent anorak happy. The blizzard of statistics listed above leading to what was Butcher’s target – namely ensuring the name Hibernian would be among those involved in this afternoon’s draw for the fifth round after returning from that all-too-familiar journey along the A9.
The ultimate target is a third successive final, a flight of fancy in the eyes of many, but Butcher would be the first to point out “you have to be in it to win it” and with Motherwell suffering a shock defeat to League Two Albion Rovers, there will be at least five Scottish Premiership sides missing from the last 16.
If those previous two trips to Hampden ended in bitter disappointment, few could argue Hibs had negotiated difficult routes to each of those finals, disposing of Kilmarnock and Aberdeen first time round and, last season, taking care of cup holders Hearts, the Dons and Killie before falling at the ultimate hurdle.
However, as Butcher had highlighted in the build-up to the start of this season’s competition, those experiences had instilled in those who had been in the Hibs set-up a knowledge of what it takes, that it was “in their DNA.”
It was a valid observation and one which stood Hibs in good stead as they prepared for Dingwall, while others counted the mounting odds against them, the fact they’d never beaten Derek Adams’ side, that Butcher himself hadn’t won in Dingwall, that the Scottish Cup was the one trophy which had eluded him in his playing days, while Hibs’ own record of not having lifted this particular piece of silverware goes almost without saying.
“I had two hoodoos on Tuesday, eight by Thursday,” joked Butcher in reference to his two pre-match press conferences. “Everybody was telling me last week ‘You have not done this, you have not done that’. Today we have maybe dispelled one or two of them. It wasn’t the best of football matches – it was a gritty cup tie.”
However, with that said, the sole objective of cup football is ensuring you are in the draw for the next round and to that end it was achieved as far as Hibs were concerned. Handling remained calm after the tenacity of Scott Robertson and then skipper Liam Craig had won possession just outside County’s penalty area. Craig then released the youngster, who drilled a low shot beyond Mark Brown from 16 yards. By doing so, Handling obeyed the first rule of playing to the whistle, even although his initial thought was he might be marginally offside given the space he found himself in.
“I thought I was offside,” he admitted, “but I put it away to make sure and when I looked over I saw the linesman running back to the halfway line.”
It was to prove the decisive moment with neither side carving out a plethora of chances, although County had a goal disallowed when referee Craig Thomson spotted a raised boot from Kevin Luckassen which caught Ryan McGivern in the face before Melvin De Leeuw’s cross found Gary Glen, whose attempt was ruled out. Luckassen then saw his header clip the outside of goalkeeper Ben Williams’ right-hand post.
At the end of the day though, former Hibs assistant manager Adams had no complaints about the outcome. He said: “I thought we were very poor. We did not play well and over the 90 minutes – we did not deserve to go through. It was a lacklustre performance from us, there was no cohesion, not up to standard.”
Hibs, on the other hand, continue to surprise Butcher by following up a hard-fought point against St Mirren with another performance based on effort, energy and endeavour, repeatedly turning their opponents by knocking the ball long and forcing them to turn towards their own goal. It was a simple tactic, helped immensely by the willingness of James Collins to run the channels, to chase and harry, to pursue seemingly lost causes.
It ensured, as was the case in the second half in Paisley, that much of the match was played in the Staggies’ half of the pitch where, as Butcher pointed out, his side were prepared to get the ball down and play. He said: “They showed a level of fitness last week and today showed me some skills as well. Once they get the ball down and pass it they are not a bad side.
“There’s a fighting spirit and togetherness. We have seen qualities in the team we never knew were there. They have surprised us in that respect. They keep surprising us, which is brilliant, and if they keep doing that we will be very happy.”
Butcher’s arrival has resulted in Hibs being a far more balanced side, with Craig and Robertson far more comfortable in their preferred positions in central midfield and Lewis Stevenson restored to the left side. The recalled Paul Cairney also offers a touch more width on the right.
All Hibs’ good work, however, was almost undone by Cairney’s red card 19 minutes from time, whistler Thomson adjudging the winger, who had been booked earlier for delaying a free-kick, to have taken a “dive” when he went through on County keeper Mark Brown.
The former Hibs star was as adamant as Thomson that Cairney was the guilty party, but, not surprisingly, the 1083 Easter Road fans gathered behind that goal saw it as no more than yet another highly debatable decision against their club by this particular official.
Butcher agreed, saying: “I thought the second yellow was extremely harsh. It’s either a goal-kick or a penalty. There was contact, Paul has a big mark on his shin where it was made, so a second yellow for simulation was very, very harsh.”
Television pundits Pat Nevin and Steven Thompson were in complete agreement when reviewing the incident on Sportscene, both adamant “It was never, ever a dive”, while agreeing it wasn’t a penalty either as they felt Brown had got a touch on the ball.
Nevertheless, it left Hibs facing a tricky period, although they were helped when County substitute Steven Saunders pulled up with a hamstring injury, reducing the home side to ten men with Adams having already made full use of his bench. It left the Capital club to see out those final few minutes before Butcher let the travelling support – which made up almost half the crowd – see what it meant to him in celebration.
“It was a lovely feeling,” he admitted, “It was another small step forward.”