PAUL CAIRNEY called Hampden home for more than three seasons, racking up around 60 matches playing for Queen’s Park. But tomorrow he knows he’ll see the National Stadium in an entirely different light as some 17,000 Hibs fans descend on Mount Florida determined to roar Pat Fenlon’s players into another William Hill Scottish Cup final.
The scenes which will greet James McPake as he leads the Easter Road side down the tunnel for the lunchtime start will be in stark contrast to those Cairney witnessed as he began his career with the Spiders, and it’s an occasion he’s determined to enjoy to the full.
He said: “It’s every boy’s dream to play at Hampden and I was lucky enough to do so many, many times. I was only 17 or 18 when I played my first game for Queen’s Park there and I was probably a bit over-awed by it all.
“But it soon became home, a great pitch, a great place to play. But I’d imagine tomorrow will be totally different to anything I experienced with Queen’s Park. Our biggest crowd was probably 1000, tops, in a stadium which holds more than 52,000. It could be a bit strange, so with thousands of Hibs fans coming to cheer us on the atmosphere will be terrific.
“It’s going to be a great occasion. The place will be bouncing and hopefully we can get the result we want to be able to do it all over again at the end of next month.”
Facing Hibs in the CIS Insurance Cup as John Collins’ side began their defence of the trophy in the summer of 2007 was, Cairney claimed, the highlight of his time at Queen’s Park where he played in both the Third and Second Divisions before stepping up to Partick Thistle where his performances caught the eye of Hibs boss Fenlon. He said: “We ran Hibs close that night. They won 2-1 with goals from Filipe Morais and Steven Fletcher before Michael Dunlop scored for us. It was a great experience because I was still a young lad, but tomorrow’s match is undoubtedly the biggest in my career so far.
“I’ve only played one Scottish Cup tie at Hampden when Queen’s Park beat Peterhead before being knocked out by Celtic, but this is a massive occasion for the club, the players and the fans alike. I joined Hibs last summer hoping there would be matches such as this and thankfully one has come along in my first season.
“As professional football players we are all aware that there are plenty of players down through the years who never got the chance to play in a cup final, but now there’s a fair few of the lads at Hibs who have the opportunity to make it back-to-back finals.”
That fact does, of course, raise the bitter memories of Hibs’ last visit to Hampden and that crushing, humiliating defeat by Capital rivals Hearts, a day which will live forever in the minds of those who witnessed it.
But Cairney insisted the events of last May will play no part in proceedings tomorrow.
The 25-year-old midfielder said: “I watched last season’s final on television, but this is a new team, the gaffer has brought in his own players and we aren’t focusing on what happened last time, but what we can do tomorrow.”
Missing out on a top-six finish in the SPL having flirted with the very top of the table only a few months ago was a bitter disappointment to Fenlon and his squad, leading the manager to admit failing to achieve that stated goal was a failure. Again, though, Cairney insisted there was no cloud of depression hanging over him or his team-mates.
He said: “Of course we were all very disappointed but we came back into training on Monday, got our heads down and began preparing for this one.
“The boys have trained really hard all week, they are looking forward to it and we all appreciate just what is at stake.”
However, Cairney is well aware that while Hibs go into the match as favourites, more by dint of their status as the SPL club rather than recent form which has seen them lose three games in succession while Falkirk have enjoyed a run of four straight wins, the Bairns will provide stiff opposition.
And while Fenlon and his backroom staff have been imparting the knowledge of the opposition they’ve gained through frequent spy missions since the semi-final draw was made, Cairney has his own first-hand experience of Falkirk having faced them over the past couple of season with Partick. He said: “They have a lot of young boys who, I am sure, will come flying out the blocks at us.
“They’ve got a new manager [Gary Holt] in place which will probably also give them a bit of a lift as they’ll want to impress him in his first match in charge.
“Lyle Taylor has scored a lot of goals for them, they are good in central midfield and at the back Darren Dods has bags of experience which they can lean on.
“It promises to be a tough game, but it’s a nice, big wide pitch which if we can get the ball down and play as we can should benefit our game.”
While admitting it would be good to get an early goal to help settle any nerves and get the Hibs fans – who are likely to outnumber the Falkirk support by three to one – bouncing, Cairney agreed no-one will care when a goal comes or who scores it so long as it is Hibs who have their noses in front at the final whistle.
And that, he believes, is where the green and white army which will head along the M8 early tomorrow morning have their part to play.
Recalling the backing Fenlon’s side received as they disposed of Kilmarnock at Rugby Park at the quarter-final stage, he said: “Although I didn’t play, I was there and I think that’s the best away support I have ever seen.
“Even Kenny Shiels [Kilmarnock’s manager] commented on it. They didn’t stop from first whistle to last. It was amazing to see and hopefully it will be the same again.
“But having said that we want to have them on their feet with a good display. We haven’t been good enough in recent weeks, so we owe them a good performance.”