While the Easter Road players will have to live with regret for the rest of their days, the fans can at least hold their heads high in the respect that they helped play a part in one of the greatest spectacles Scottish football will ever have staged.
With so much hype in the build-up, there was always a danger the occasion might fail to live up to its billing. In terms of a competitive match, it probably did, as half the ground emptied long before the end. But make no mistake, the combination of noise and colour inside Hampden as kick-off loomed was truly spine-tingling for neutrals, never mind those who had spent all their days living in Edinburgh and following the fortunes of Hearts or Hibs.
The drive along the M8 had been thoroughly pride-inducing, as everywhere you looked, buses and cars were bumper to bumper with green or maroon scarves, flags or streamers flailing from the windows. Having plied themselves with drink, plastered their skin in face paint and dressed up in the usual array of cup final fancy dress outfits, the fans began pouring in for the biggest game of their lives. They were joined by a host of former players, with the likes of Craig Gordon and Steven Fletcher among those spotted posing for photos with fans outside the ground beforehand. How Hibs could have done with the latter in their team on Saturday. In fact, such was the dominance Hearts would go on to exert, even if they had the Wolves forward in their ranks, they’d probably still have needed another couple of Golden Generation members such as Kevin Thomson and Scott Brown, who were also in attendance, to be competitive. As for Gordon, Hearts fans were never given any reason to wish the Scotland goalkeeper was back between the sticks, as Jamie MacDonald’s goal remained pretty much untroubled for the bulk of the match, barring James McPake’s first-half goal.
Hearts fans would have bitten the hand off of anyone offering this prospect at the start of the game, as, amid a quite spectacular pre-match atmosphere, it seemed impossible that Hibs could fall quite as flat as they did. Then again, as Hearts legend John Robertson and his Hibs counterpart Pat Stanton raised the roof by parading the trophy round the ground just before kick-off, you had to feel for the two sets of players who would have to keep their cool amid this incredible din. A huge Hearts banner was unravelled behind the goal proclaiming “Blood doesn’t show on a maroon jersey” as the Jambos entered into their trademark big-game scarf-twirling routine. Meanwhile, at the other end 20,000 green flags waved frantically in the south Glasgow air as the decibel level rose to deafening.
By the time the players emerged and lined up for the pre-match photos in front of the magnificent William Hill-provided club crests which hovered in the air like massive kites, it really was a sight to behold. This wasn’t like the 2006 semi-final, when depleted Hibs knew they were beaten before the game had started. There was a real sense that the Hibs fans had started to believe they could pull this off. Even the most optimistic Jambo must have been visited by a touch of dread at how ‘up for it’ their city rivals seemed. The sight of three Hibs players wearing luminous orange boots also suggested a degree of confidence among Pat Fenlon’s team.
However, it was all a charade. After the sudden bang of a pre-match firework had frightened the wits out of many of us in attendance, the Hibs players then set about giving their supporters an even bigger shock by producing the type of abject display they could only have envisaged in their worst nightmares.
After Hearts eased into a two-goal lead within 27 minutes, all hope drained from the Hibs end. Some even appeared to head for the exits, as their dreams of the ultimate glory were ripped away in the most brutal of fashions.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end, a maroon and white wasps’ nest was erupting. A celebratory smoke-bomb was let off and the taunting of their bedraggled rivals duly began. It was evident from this point that a repeat of their 2006 semi-final rout was well and truly on the cards.
Hibs, to their credit, rallied to pull one back at just the right time and there’s no question they went into the break with renewed optimism. Hearts, who were within a whisker of being 3-0 up when Suso Santana’s effort was cleared by McPake, would have been rattled at only going in with a one-goal advantage after all their dominance. Suso, so often a galvanising force, tried to rally the Hearts fans as he left the park at half-time and he would be the man to ensure they could breathe easier again moments into the second half when his inspirational burst down the right coaxed the game-killing foul which led to Pa Kujabi being sent off and a controversial penalty awarded. Within minutes of the restart Hibs were 4-1 down and a man short. Game over. Around that point, it was announced on the scoreboard that a Hibs fan who had proposed at half-time had received the answer he wanted. Talk about raining on a parade.
There was something strange about seeing a game which had been built up so much over the previous five weeks being played out like a training match for the last half or so, with half the Hibs support having long fled the scene. It was hard not to feel for the green hordes. Then again, sympathy was in short supply from the opposite end as the old favourites such as “Cheerio, cheerio” and “You’ve not won the big cup since 1902” were directed at those hardy souls who – to their eternal credit – had remained to witness the end of a massacre.
When Rudi Skacel – who else – put the finishing touches to the rout, one overwhelmed Jambo lost the plot in the heat of the moment and sprinted from behind the goal, over the advertising boards, on to the park and almost to the halfway line before being huckled by stewards. In that crazed moment, this delirious scallywag had shown more incisiveness and defiance than anyone in a green jersey had managed all afternoon.
The merciless goading continued from those in maroon, prompting Fenlon’s “get it up ye” gesture. It was little surprise that ref Craig Thomson opted to put Hibs out their misery by blowing for full-time with less than 90 minutes on the clock. Hearts weren’t complaining, though, as their players launched into an impromptu dance across the pitch to KC and the Sunshine Band, while those Hibs players who weren’t protesting furiously to ref Thomson slumped to the ground in shame and despair.
The Hibs end emptied, barring a handful of masochists, leaving Hearts to bask in the glory of possibly the most meaningful victory in their entire history. Marius Zaliukas, reflecting on the magnitude of the achievement, wept as he prepared to collect the trophy. “Good Feeling” by Flo Rida belted out over the tannoy as the Lithuanian hoisted the trophy before he and his team-mates boarded the winners’ podium for photos amid the ticker-tape, and then took the trophy on a lap of honour. Sheer, unbridled jubilation was unfolding. By the time Paulo Sergio, the architect of this most famous triumph, was hoisted into the air Guardiola-style by his merry-making players, some Hibs fans would already have made it back to Edinburgh. Their dreams had been well and truly obliterated for another year.
Hearts, in stark contrast, were in the process of amassing a lifetime of happy memories. As the Jambos bounded out of the stadium into the south Glasgow sunshine and back on to their supporters’ buses, the party was only just beginning. This past weekend will take some beating for those of a maroon persuasion.