James McPake: Leigh Griffiths and Garry O’Connor led from the front in Hibs Cup success

James McPake celebrates at full time
James McPake celebrates at full time
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Defensive rock McPake hails the overall contribution of Hampden goal heroes

THE Hibs rearguard may have taken a lot of plaudits in the last few weeks but skipper James McPake reckons Garry O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths deserve just as much recognition as the back four for shoring up their defence.

McPake and central defensive partner Paul Hanlon have earned rave reviews in recent weeks as Hibs have not only booked their place in the Scottish Cup final, but also given themselves some breathing space over Dunfermline at the foot of the SPL table.

In their last three matches, the Hibees have conceded three goals, while scoring six at the other end.

There has certainly been a huge improvement at the back but McPake insists that they couldn’t have done it without the help of their two hitmen.

O’Connor and Griffiths are more familiar with being hailed for their strikerate but McPake says they have proved themselves more than valuable in defence as well.

The strikers bagged a goal each in the weekend’s victory over Aberdeen – a result which will see Hibs take on city rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden next month – and McPake said: “We got the early goal against Aberdeen and I think that set the tone. I thought big Gaz and Sparky were absolutely everywhere. They must have been shattered because of the work they put in for us and we certainly appreciate that at the back.

“The defence maybe has had a lot of plaudits lately because it’s not been as leaky and not as shaky as it maybe was before, but it all starts with the boys at the front.

“All through the team I think we are looking stronger, so credit to those two for that and to everyone else.”

McPake played a vital role in Hibs’ winning goal at Hampden, powering a header down into the path of O’Connor before the big hitman laid it off for Griffiths to score six minutes from time.

“It’s headers like those that I am expected to win and if I don’t get them then I am kicking myself,” McPake insisted. “That’s my job and I’m just helping where I can. After I won the ball there was a good touch from Gaz and he sent it straight onto Sparky, who somehow managed to stay calm on his bad foot.”

McPake has proved inspirational as Hibs captain in Ian Murray’s absence, both for his team-mates and the club’s supporters, who are desperate to see the former Livingston defender offered a permanent deal at Easter Road.

He only joined Hibs in January on loan from Coventry City, but is clearly loving being back playing football in Scotland and says he is already more than aware of what winning the Scottish Cup would mean for everyone connected with the club.

There was a touch of the Braveheart about him as McPake roared in celebration with the supporters at the end of the 90 minutes and he said: “I meant the world to me. It was a big day for the football club, I have only been here for a short space of time but I already realise how big this cup is to them. The supporters turned out in their numbers and they were behind us again – as they have been recently – and the whole day was just brilliant.

“Hopefully, getting to the final will repay them for their support. Where they find us in the league right now, a club of this size shouldn’t be down there but just because you’re a big club doesn’t give you an automatic right to stay in the division.

“There’s no doubt that we owed them something and hopefully they will be able to have another good day out come May.”

McPake beat his fist against his captain’s armband at the final whistle and revealed afterwards that it had been a special message, adding: “It was a message to my wife. I had something on the back of it. We have had a bit of a horrible year and it was just something that I wanted to do for her.”

The Easter Road side were certainly the better of the two teams in the first half at Hampden, losing their way after the break to allow Rory Fallon to bag a spectacular leveller but showed a resilience to set up their late winner.

McPake was satisfied with the overall performance against Aberdeen but admits the team still has room for improvement when it comes to keeping their standards high for an entire 90 minutes.

“I think when they scored we got back on top and that’s what annoys me because I don’t know why we couldn’t have played like that after we scored our own goal so early in the game,” he said.

“When Garry scored we seemed to sit deep, but maybe that is just a natural reaction to going in front and the big occasion.

“I don’t really remember any clear-cut chances for them, they were more scrappy and then they scored that wonder goal.

“But I thought that we deserved our victory.”

The final showdown with the Jambos has already created a tidal wave of interest and there is expected to be a clamour for tickets for the game. However, McPake insisted that Hibs must approach the match as they would against any other team in the top flight.

“We have just got to approach the game like we would any other and hope that we can bring this 110-year record to an end and get our hands on this trophy. It is going to be a massive day for Edinburgh but, at the end of the day, our aim is just to win the cup.”

The player also took time out to praise the club’s supporters who travelled to Hampden and backed their team from start to finish.

And he’s hoping that the players will be able to repay the Easter Road faithful at the end of the season with the piece of silverware that has eluded them for so long.

However, McPake knows that, with Hibs still battling to shrug off Dunfermline in the battle for SPL survial, his colleagues cannot afford to take their eye off the ball in the league.

While the May 19 game is all the supporters will be talking about for the next month, McPake insisted the players would be foolish to do the same.

“The fans were outstanding and they have been since I came to the club. Since I arrived, we have not given the best of seasons but hopefully we can give them their best season in 110 years,” he said.

“But we know we have now got a massive five league games to take care of, so I suppose to end to the season will be like six cup finals for us.

“We have got to get ourselves out of this position and I know there have been debates about whether this club would take winning the cup if it meant relegation but there’s no way this club could be relegated.

“Getting this club out of this mess is as important to me as getting to the cup final.

“I would rather be staying in the SPL. The manager will not let us – and I will certainly not let us – focus on the cup final. At the weekend, we celebrated, as we had a right to, but now the focus is back on the SPL and that’s the way it will stay until May 19.”