Cup glory was the last thing on Matt Doherty’s mind as he arrived at Easter Road on transfer deadline day, just one of eight new players brought in by Pat Fenlon with the sole intention being to ensure Hibs’ survival in the SPL.
Today, though, Doherty believes he and his team-mates have every right to dream, not just of one trip to Hampden, but two. The first, of course, will come in the middle of next month when the Hibees face Aberdeen in the semi-final of the William Hill Scottish Cup, just 90 minutes away from a return for the final itself at the end of May. And yet barely six weeks ago even to suggest such a scenario might await Fenlon and a side patched together mostly with loan deals would have drawn gales of laughter from all directions, Hibs having barely scraped past Second Divison leaders Cowdenbeath at the first hurdle.
In the intervening period, however, “the team that Pat built” has slowly but surely headed in the right direction. And, although securing the Edinburgh club’s place in the top flight of Scottish football remains very much the over-riding priority, the Cup has provided a much-welcomed distraction.
Given Hibs haven’t lifted this particular piece of silverware for 110 years, eluding the grasp of magnificent teams of the past such as the Famous Five and Turnbull’s Tornadoes, it would appear fanciful that a side thrown together more out of necessity than anything might succeed where their more illustrious predecessors failed. But having avoided treble-chasing Celtic in the semi-final draw – the Hoops due to face either Capital rivals Hearts or St Mirren – Doherty argues that Hibs have every right to believe they’ve as great a chance of going all the way as Aberdeen.
The Dons currently sit ten points and three places above Hibs and are currently enjoying a run of 13 matches undefeated but, in three matches between the sides this season, they’ve been separated only by Scott Vernon’s highly-controversial penalty at Pittodrie, awarded when Peter Pawlett went down under Ivan Sproule’s challenge, the Aberdeen kid later hit with two-match ban for diving.
The other two matches, both played at Easter Road, ended in no-scoring draws, leaving the semi-final apparently finely poised. Between now and then, of course, Hibs will be focused on widening the gap between themselves and basement outfit Dunfermline and, according to Doherty, continuing the remarkable improvement shown in recent weeks.
The on-loan Wolves youngster said: “When we came to Hibs we were all people who did not know each other, but that has worked for us. The boys have all settled in well, we’re looking solid at the back and playing with a lot of confidence going forward.
“We’ve been keeping clean sheets and even if we are not winning every match we have been creating chances in all of our games which has given everyone a boost.”
So, too, has Hibs’ Cup run, Doherty and co now contemplating swapping the austere surroundings of Ayr United’s antiquated Somerset Park for the national stadium, something he admitted he hadn’t even considered when making the switch from the English Midlands to Edinburgh. He said: “I thought Somerset Park was great, a nice little stadium. I thought the fans, packed in and standing round three sides of the ground made for a real cup-tie feeling.
“Now we are swapping that for Hampden with more than 52,000 seats and I’m sure it will be almost full when the semi comes around. It’s something for us all to look forward to. I have to admit that it’s a real bonus.
“When I came to Hibs all I was thinking about was the league games to be played but then I found out after we’d beaten Kilmarnock that if we were to win at Ayr we’d be playing at Hampden.
“It will be my first semi- final at this level of football, we’ll be up for the game just as Aberdeen will. It’s a chance for us to win a bit of silverware this club hasn’t had in a long time and while it won’t be easy, in Cup football things can go your way on the day.”
Things certainly went Hibs’ way against First Division Ayr, Fenlon’s new-look side neatly sidestepping a potential banana skin by beating the team which had knocked them out of the Cup last year and one which boasted a string of giant-killing acts this season in sending Inverness Caley, Hearts and St Mirren crashing in the Scottish Communities League Cup.
Roy O’Donovan settled the nerves with an early header before referee Steven McLean – who had awarded two penalties against Hibs as they went down 4-3 to Motherwell a few weeks ago – pointed to the spot after clocking Ayr’s Andy Geggan wrestling Isaiah Osbourne to the turf.
Leigh Griffiths stepped up to blast home from 12 yards, wrenching the net from its rigging, and thereafter, as Doherty insisted, the game was over.
Doherty admitted all in the away dug-out were initially mystified by the penalty award and revealed he had his heart in his mouth when the ball struck his arm as he slipped inside his own box but insisted McLean got it right in that instance, claiming: “It was not intentional.”
Fenlon will now find himself in the happy position of having a squad of players battling for their place in the side at Hampden with the likes of Tom Soares, Sean O’Hanlon, David Stephens, Callum Booth, Ian Murray and Martin Scott not even making the bench for Somerset Park.
Doherty himself made an appearance as a substitute, replacing Pa Kujabi who had felt ill at half-time, having lost his place in the starting line-up, revealing he was surprised to find himself playing at left back in the place of the Gambian internationalist.
He said: “I thought I’d be going in alongside James McPake with Paul Hanlon going out but the gaffer asked me how I was at left back. I just wanted to get on the pitch so I told him ‘fine’, and it worked out just that.”
The fight for Cup places starts on Sunday with the third Edinburgh derby of the season at Tynecastle, Doherty’s first chance to face Hearts and it’s a prospect he’s relishing.
He said: “I’ve heard all about it, it’s a massive game for both clubs and it would be even nicer to win away from home.”
Hearts go into the match as favourites having bossed the derby for too long in the eyes of Hibs fans but with the game effectively one “in hand” over Dunfermline, Doherty realises it carries greater significance than merely city bragging rights.
He said: “It’s a chance to pull ourselves that bit further away from Dunfermline. We’ll be going into it with confidence.”