Another exhilarating Scottish Cup match at Hampden that ended 3-2 and involved a late winner, but, unlike 11 months previously, this time there was to be no glory for spirited Hibs.
Where there was only unbridled joy after the dramatic victory over Rangers in the final last May, on Saturday Hibs and their supporters left the national stadium following their semi-final defeat by Aberdeen with mixed feelings.
There were regrets and recriminations over a slack start in which they gifted their opponents two goals, encouragement from the manner in which they responded to draw level through substitute Grant Holt and Dylan McGeouch – their two best players on the day – and despondency as the Dons fluked the game’s decisive goal at a time when Hibs looked the likelier winners. Afterwards, there was a show of appreciation from the 20,000-strong green-and-white army, who roared the players off at the end of what was widely deemed a spirited defence of their trophy.
This sense of pride wasn’t shared by their manager, however, as Neil Lennon lacerated his players for their “utterly pathetic” start and then for failing to grasp a clear opportunity to make it to a second successful final once they had got the match back to 2-2. “They get no accolades from me – they might from the punters, but not from me,” he bristled. “They should have won. The opportunity was there.”
While his general point about not being happy in defeat was perfectly legitimate, not to mention encouraging for a Hibs support who want to see their side return to the top flight next season with a winning mentality, the manager’s dig about the majority of his players “looking like the boy band they’ve been over the last three or four years” was unnecessary and not reflective of a group who have generally been prominent in restoring the club’s credibility during this period.
In light of the fact Lennon had described the clash with the second-best team in the country as “an acid test” of his team’s readiness for next season, the fact Hibs, who defeated Aberdeen in the League Cup last season, again got themselves into a position where they “should have won” bodes well for their Premiership prospects.
For all that they were out of sorts in the opening half hour, there is no escaping the fact that the concession of a goal after just 12 seconds, following an uncharacteristic lapse from Darren McGregor, had the double-edged effect of jolting Hibs and lifting Aberdeen. After the Easter Road side had got themselves in a fankle straight from their own kick-off, the usually-dependable McGregor was horribly slack with a square pass to defensive sidekick Efe Ambrose, who had been afflicted by illness on the day of the game, and Adam Rooney nipped in to steal possession and despatch a clinical strike beyond Ofir Marciano from the edge of the box. Lennon felt the centre-back should have hoofed the ball up the pitch. McGregor duly held his hands up. “Instead of just clearing it, I’ve maybe been caught cold,” he said. “I’m gutted – I let the boys down.”
Given that Aberdeen had won 16 of their previous 19 matches, this was an obvious setback for Hibs, who subsequently toiled to recover their composure. They fell further behind in the 23rd minute after another cheaply-conceded goal. Fraser Fyvie was booked after giving away a free-kick for a foul on Kenny McLean in Hibs’ left-back area. Ryan Christie, just a few yards from the corner flag, spotted Marciano slightly off his line and curled in a low effort which squirmed in at the goalkeeper’s near post. The at-fault Israeli wasn’t aided by the fact his two-man defensive wall of McGeouch and Martin Boyle split and allowed the delivery to go between them. “Schoolboy stuff,” was Lennon’s verdict. “I saw the ball late and that’s why I reacted late,” said Marciano. “I need to analyse it and make sure I do better in that type of situation in the future.”
There was no immediate response from Hibs. Set up in a 4-5-1 formation, they were struggling to make any impact in the final third. Lennon acted in the 33rd minute by taking off midfielder Fyvie and sending on Grant Holt to partner the previously isolated Jason Cummings. Fyvie was visibly baffled at being removed so early. “He got thrown under the bus by the rest,” said Lennon. “I had to sacrifice somebody. It could have been four or five of them. The rest owe Fraser a huge apology.”
The decision was vindicated as Hibs went on to gain an instant foothold. “The minute Grant came on it changed the whole dimension for us,” said McGeouch.
Holt pulled one back within three minutes of entering the fray as he powered in a close-range header from a Martin Boyle cross. The 36-year-old was then instrumental in Hibs’ equaliser. McGeouch surged from wide on the left, played a one-two with the big striker and the midfielder burst on to the return ball and sent a superb angled finish beyond Joe Lewis from ten yards out. Scenes of bedlam erupted among the Hibs support as Lennon sprinted jubilantly along to the corner flag.
They had their tails up but were dealt a blow when the influential McGeouch suffered yet more fitness woe and had to go off three minutes after his goal. “I just felt my groin a wee bit once I scored and I didn’t want to take any chances of leaving us a man down,” said the goal hero, who received a warm embrace from Lennon.
“The momentum had changed when we got our second goal and I thought we were going to win it,” said Marciano. This feeling was shared by most in the stadium as expectant Hibs fans willed the ball into the net and their Dons counterparts watched on quietly and anxiously. But with five minutes left, Jonny Hayes – kept quiet for most of the match – fired in a shot from 25 yards out that took a huge deflection off McGregor and wrong-footed Marciano before trundling in at the goalkeeper’s right-hand post.
There was almost some more stoppage-time delirium for Hibs when Marciano went up and got his head to a Cummings corner, but Joe Lewis was equal to it. “It would have been special but it wasn’t to be,” said the goalkeeper.
This brave effort to force extra-time was appreciated by the Hibs support, who rose as one when the final whistle sounded to thank their team for a memorable 11-month reign as defending champions and a spirited effort at reaching the final once more. As they prepare to end their three-year Premiership exile, the Easter Road faithful can be heartened by the fact that, even though the widely-held consensus was that they were a match for Scotland’s second-best team, their manager felt their display left plenty room for improvement. Expectations are high under Lennon.
“I agree with the manager about the first half hour because we were a bit panicked at the start,” said Marciano. “We conceded two goals that normally we wouldn’t, but I think we handled the situation great to get back into the game. I truly thought we were going to go on and get a third goal. I’m proud of each player – I think we did our maximum.”