No other local paper in Britain can have had as many major cup finals to cover in the last year, and it’s these frenzied build-ups that ensure an additional buzz for us embattled souls on the Evening News sports desk. This Sunday, for the third time in 53 weeks, the eyes of the Capital will be fixed on a showpiece match at the national stadium, each one played out with a different narrative.
In last May’s all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final, it was all about local pride and endless bragging rights, with Hearts bounding off with both as they trounced Hibs on a bright afternoon in the south of Glasgow. Then, a little over two months ago, the Jambos, going in as marginal favourites against St Mirren, squandered the chance to illuminate an otherwise grim season as they lost the League Cup final on a grey day at Hampden.
In the same cavernous bowl through west, Hearts had gone from the ultimate glory to the biggest of letdowns in just ten months. There seems little reason why things can’t be as radically contrasting for Hibs as they head for consecutive Scottish Cup finals, with redemption the main theme accompanying their latest attempt at hoodoo-busting. The bookies and general consensus may view Hibs as bigger underdogs against Celtic this Sunday than they were against Hearts last year, but I’d argue Pat Fenlon’s side are far better equipped than last time.
Celtic may be a more formidable proposition than Hearts, but, admittedly with the significant benefit of hindsight, the Jambos were never likely to lose last May. They had too many big-game players viewing it as the game of their lives, while Hibs were littered with short-term fixes who weren’t ready for the size of the match.
This time round, it will be different. As well as being steeled by that harrowing experience, Fenlon, a much surer-footed manager than he was a year ago, and the players who survived last summer’s cull, such as Paul Hanlon and James McPake, will be aided by a far more reliable batch of comrades. In defence of the 2012 fall guys, Matt Doherty, Pa Kujabi, Tom Soares and George Francomb had little time to find their feet at Hibs before resembling rabbits in the headlights at Hampden, but it seems safe to suggest the likes of Ben Williams and Kevin Thomson won’t be as fazed by the magnitude of the occasion. Last year, Hibs were going into the final against a side who had made mincemeat of them on each of the three occasions they had met in the league. This time, they face a Celtic side they have matched in the head-to-head department, with the three SPL meetings bringing a win apiece and a draw.
Despite the aura that should come with easing to the SPL title and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, Neil Lennon’s side have been as flaky domestically over the past few years as any Celtic side in recent times. This season, they have looked particularly vulnerable whenever leaving the sanctuary of Parkhead, winning less than half of their 19 SPL road trips. For a club of Celtic’s stature, they also have an abysmal recent record at Hampden to overcome.
The truth is Celtic are nowhere near being one of the top 16 sides in Europe. They got to that stage by thriving as underdogs. That’s what Hibs, buoyed by the momentum of a strong finish to the season, will have to do this weekend.
As long as they embrace the occasion this time, the Easter Road side have more than an outsider’s chance of ensuring the Scottish Cup is theirs.