FOR 45 horrible minutes at Hampden it appeared as if a season which was threatening to fade into nothing would implode entirely.
A huge Hibs support had marched on the national stadium seeking a measure of redemption, a place in the final of the Scottish Cup which would help ease the disappointment of watching a top-six finish in the SPL slip through their fingers.
Instead they were forced to suffer again, as goals from Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Blair Alston fired First Division Falkirk into a seemingly unassailable lead and left Pat Fenlon’s men staring at the prospect of a miserable few weeks, playing out their final five league matches knowing they had been branded failures on all fronts.
Tonight, though, the Easter Road players head back into action against Aberdeen with their season reinvigorated and, according to midfielder Tom Taiwo, with twin targets in mind: to climb from ninth place to seventh and in so doing stake their claim for a place in the side which will face Celtic in the Cup final at the end of next month.
There are those, of course, who feel the outcome of that match is nothing more than a formality, a view based on Hibs’ well-documented inability to win the Scottish Cup since 1902 allied to poor recent league form which saw Fenlon’s players plummet into the lower reaches of the SPL.
Taiwo, naturally, argues that the storming comeback he and his team-mates mounted to defeat Falkirk in extra-time suggests there’s more to his side than results over the past two or three months might suggest.
The little midfielder, who replaced Kevin Thomson midway through the second half of that game, said: “I think we were all shocked and disappointed by that first half, I don’t think we’ve played as badly all season. But we have always said we have great team spirit and I think that showed in the second half. I don’t know exactly what went on in the dressing-room at half-time as I was out on the pitch warming up, but from what the boys were saying it was a very heated discussion.
“More than anything it was about salvaging some pride, putting in a decent performance and hoping it would end in a win.”
Taiwo and his team-mates were given a few days off in the wake of their dramatic semi-final revival, time most of them undoubtedly used to reflect on what had happened and the challenges which lie ahead.
The former Leeds, Chelsea and Carlisle player said: “I’ve never been involved in anything like that in my career. Coming back from 3-0 down is the sort of thing more associated with the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United, so it will live long in the memory. No-one remembers the beaten semi-finalists in a Cup but now we have the chance to play in what will be for many of our players the biggest games of their career. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in two Johnstone Paint Trophy finals with Carlisle but although that was a great competition to win I’m not being disrespectful when I say it doesn’t compare to the Scottish Cup final.
“You don’t get to play at a sold-out national stadium every week, it’s the last match of the season, the showpiece game and one which every football player dreams of being involved in. However, it means that each of our last five league matches has taken on even greater significance. There will be those who have performed consistently well over the course of the season who will think they have a good shout of being involved but there are other places which are most definitely up for grabs which means no-one can be complacent. The manager has shown he won’t hesitate to change the team.”
Taiwo pointed to his own experience, as he was totally excluded from the squad which faced Celtic in the final SPL game before the split and yet among the five substitutes named for the semi-final seven days later. He said: “A week’s training is all it can take to make the difference between playing, being a substitute or not being involved at all.
“I think the manner of the victory over Falkirk has really opened up the competition for places. The manager told us after the game the first half was not acceptable, that it wasn’t the Hibs side he knew. The second half was of a good standard, but we know we have a lot of areas in which we must improve to make sure what happened in those first 45 minutes doesn’t happen again.
“We had a wee break after the game, a lot of energy was used up at Hampden but you can see the boys have returned with the batteries recharged. In training people have looked even more eager to impress, they are looking fresh and enthusiastic because every one of us knows the next five games will decide who plays in the final.”
It is easy, of course, to allow the prospect of a second successive Scottish Cup final to overshadow everything, but Taiwo insisted no-one has lost sight of the importance of gaining as many points as possible from the remaining games after losing their last three matches before the split. He said: “As a group we have had targets, we wanted to finish top six and have a good run in the Cup. We didn’t manage to meet our ambitions in one but we have done so in the other.
“I know people have been saying our performances have not been great but I don’t think that’s quite true. We drew with Dundee United and Hearts but we should have won both. If, let’s say, the controversial decisions hadn’t gone against us we’d have been going into the Motherwell game, in which we didn’t play well, on the back of two wins which might have carried us into the top six.
“People say decisions even themselves out over a season but momentum is a tremendous thing and we perhaps lost a bit because of that. I don’t think performances have been as bad as the results.”
While Fenlon’s players may, with some justification, nurse a sense of grievance, such emotions must be put to one side with Hibs, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hearts all now vying for that seventh-place finish and the hundreds of thousands of pounds it would bring in bonus payments.
As always, it will be one match at a time for Fenlon, the immediate task being to prise three points from the visit of Aberdeen although Taiwo appreciates that will be a difficult task with four previous encounters between the sides resulting in a win apiece - Hibs’ victory coming in the Cup thanks to Gary Deegan’s explosive strike – and two draws.
It also represents new Dons boss Derek McInnes’ first match in charge.
Taiwo said: “Aberdeen are a very good side but they’ve struggled at times to score goals. We obviously enjoyed that win in the Cup but we also played well against them at home in the league earlier in the season and ended up losing.
“They’ll also be looking to finish seventh but as results have shown throughout the season up and down the table, the margins are so fine.
“Anyone on their day is capable of beating any other side, but what is going to decide seventh place is consistency. If we can manage to do that then hopefully it will be us.”