THE last we’d seen of him, Leigh Griffiths had been writhing around clutching his ankle in agony before being stretchered off the park with what looked to be a serious injury.
Yet as the final whistle blew, there he was, hobbling and hopping about in the middle of the pitch, saluting the fans and ignoring the pain to throw his manager up in the air in celebration. Not quite the miracle man, perhaps, but there’s no doubting that this is a player who has worked wonders in the short time that he has been at Easter Road.
He has bounced back from being slated in the press and hated by opposition supporters for his off-the-field activities to establish himself as the darling of the Hibs fans. After the game he showed those in the stands just how much he has appreciated their backing since making the loan move from Wolves – and how much he relished putting one over on the team from across the city.
Griffiths, having already bagged 13 goals for himself this season, was the man Hearts were most wary of going into the game. Yet, ironically, when it came to it he wasn’t even on the park when Hibs scored their late, dramatic winner.
But he was still the player that all of the home supporters wanted to cheer as their team ended a 12-game run without a win over their bitter rivals. Griffiths has made no secret of the fact he is a Hibs supporter and this long-awaited victory would have been just as sweet to him as it was to those who had paid their entrance money.
He punched the air, conducted the crowd and then bowed down with his arms above his head as if he was praying to Mecca. And they reciprocated his ‘we’re not worthy’ gesture, their roars reaching a crescendo when he grabbed Pat Fenlon around the waist and hoisted him up to take the plaudits from the crowd. One sock rolled down to his ankle and the other leg wrapped in a protective green covering, he was the last man off the pitch at the end, having gone round every home stand to salute the supporters who had backed their side so vociferously from the word go.
Griffiths might not have been on the scoresheet but he has been the difference for the Easter Road side on so many occasions already in this campaign.
And there’s no doubt he has played a huge role in bringing this team together both in the dressing room and out on the pitch. He was strongly-fancied to hit the back of the net in this Scottish Cup fourth-round tie, only to be forced off by a foot injury in the second half with the game still goalless.
With their scoring machine out of action you might have thought that the pendulum was swinging back in Hearts’ favour but David Wotherspoon, with more than a little help from Marius Zaliukas’ outstretched leg, made sure that wasn’t going to happen. The 22-year-old’s goal earned him his first derby win in ten attempts – and finally saw Fenlon’s side go some way to avenging the humiliating cup loss to Hearts back in May. Since that game there have been huge changes in both personnel and fortunes at each club. Only three of the players who started on 19 May were in the Hibs line-up yesterday and, while last season they were fighting to stave off relegation, they are riding high in the SPL right now.
Hearts, meanwhile are struggling to string positive results together and are focusing simply on trying to ensure that their club survives the latest financial crisis. With such contrasting fortunes, even before a ball had been kicked the script seemed to have been written.
There could only be one outcome, couldn’t there?
The Hibs fans who packed into Easter Road certainly thought so. It may have been almost seven months ago, but the home supporters were still smarting from their humbling in the competition’s showpiece final. That 5-1 thrashing at Hampden came at the tail end of last season but was still fresh in the memories of both sets of supporters. The home fans taunted the travelling support with chants about going bust, in reference to the Tynecastle side’s recent financial woes.
But the Hearts support responded that instead of just the five goals in the cup final, it should have been ten. Indeed, Hearts were the better side in the opening 45 minutes and had the two best openings of the first half. But yet again they had nothing to show for their efforts before the break.
Failing to convert their chances has been their downfall so far this season, having lost the likes of Rudi Skacel, Ian Black and David Templeton since the end of last season. John McGlynn admitted after the match that his side must strengthen in attack but that is easier said than done in light of the current financial state of the club. You have to feel for the Hearts manager, who will no doubt come under pressure after this result.
He worked wonders on a shoestring at Raith Rovers but has been faced with an almost impossible task in trying to meet supporters’ expectations while having new financial restrictions forced upon him. He’s effectively working with one hand tied behind his back at the moment and there’s no prospect of that changing any time soon.
All of that, of course, will be of no concern to the Hibs fans who will be waking up today able to hold their heads high for the first time in months. The history books will show nothing more than the fact that the cup holders have been knocked out at this early stage by their oldest rivals and not how a lack of cash has left Hearts hamstrung.
Hibs haven’t won this competition since 1902 and, while Fenlon insisted that this result was not about avenging their cup humbling last season, there’s no doubt that going all the way in the competition this time around would go some way to erasing the memory of the 19th of May.