Hibs' cup win made me luckiest man in football '“ Gunnarsson
There's a painting hanging on the wall of Niklas Gunnarsson's Stockholm apartment that brings a huge smile to his face every single day.
The work of Edinburgh artist Sean Nicol, it depicts Gunnarsson holding aloft the Scottish Cup, an abiding memory of the most unforgettable weekend in the 25-year-old Norwegian’s career.
Being part of the Hibs side which rewrote the history books by winning the cup for the first time in 114 years was merely the beginning, the joy of Hampden followed by the stunning scenes the next day as 150,000 crammed the streets of Edinburgh to see the trophy being brought back to Easter Road and then, to cap it all, a phone call telling him he’d been selected for the full Norwegian side for the first time. Just a few days later he was facing Portugal – the eventual winners of Euro 2016 – in Porto.
“It was the most amazing weekend,” said Gunnarsson, who’d arrived in the Capital on a short-term loan deal only to find himself becoming, along with the rest of Alan Stubbs’ team, a Hibs legend.
“Winning the cup was an unbelievable achievement, everywhere I’d gone in the city in the days before the final people were coming up to me and saying we had to do it.
“But, the following day, as we went to the City Chambers and then on the open-top bus down to Leith Links was stunning. To see so many people come in the streets was incredible. I honestly don’t think too many teams throughout Europe would have have such a reception.
“And we were lucky with the weather. It was a sunny day, something you don’t see too often in Edinburgh! It was truly Sunshine on Leith.”
As far as Gunnarsson was concerned, there was one final twist in the tale, a call from then Norwegian coach Per-Mathias Hogmo to tell him he was part of his squad to face Euros-bound Portugal, Iceland and Belgium in a string of friendly matches.
He said: “I only got the call at the end of the bus ride and, only a few days later, I was playing against Portugal. Unfortunately, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe weren’t playing as they were in the Champions League final with Real Madrid the same day but this was still the team that went on to win the European Championships.”
Six months on, the memories are so vivid it could have been yesterday.
But, as short as his time in a green-and-white shirt might have been, Gunnarsson, who is now playing for Swedish outfit Djurgardens, can happily recall the part he played in making history.
Within a few days of signing, he found himself making his debut away to Raith Rovers as Hibs, yet again, set out to end a hoodoo which had been a crushing weight on their shoulders since 1902. He said: “I hadn’t played for nine weeks. The weather was poor. It was cold and the pitch wasn’t very good but there must have been nearly 3000 Hibs fans there and we won a tight game 2-0.
“I said when I came to the club I wanted to win something. I’d spoken to Alan Stubbs and felt there was great potential, that there was something positive happening.”
Those good vibes, though, seemed to have vanished when Hibs found themselves 2-0 down to their greatest rivals Hearts in the next round and with only ten minutes remaining at Tynecastle.
However, Gunnarsson insisted he and his team-mates never lost faith, saying: “We weren’t too happy at half-time but I don’t know what happened with Hearts in the second half.
“They didn’t want to play offensive football which meant we had a lot of the ball. We felt we had a chance if we could get one goal. Jason Cumming got it and then Paul Hanlon got the equaliser.”
But Gunnarsson admitted a shiver still runs down his spine at the thought of his mis-placed clearance which clipped the top of goalkeeper Mark Oxley’s bar before the final whistle. “I had to get a touch on the ball,” he contended. “Otherwise, the Hearts player would have been clean through on Mark.
“Obviously, I didn’t mean it to hit the bar but luckily it did or it wouldn’t have been a good moment for me.
“In taking Hearts back to Easter Road for the replay, we felt there weren’t too many teams who could beat us there and, although we had a bit of luck on the night, another goal from Jason was enough and afterwards we began to feel we could go all the way to the final.”
The character of Stubbs’ players, however, was tested to the full when they had to travel to Inverness for a quarter-final replay only days after the heartache of losing the League Cup final to Ross County.
Gunnarsson recalled: “Conceding the losing goal in the last minute at Hampden was difficult to take. The bus back to Edinburgh was quiet. No-one was speaking.
“But we went to Inverness feeling they weren’t of the same standard as Hearts. Anthony Stokes was great that night. When he has a good day he can destroy most defences in Britain.” Two goals from the Irishman were enough, sending Hibs into the semi-final and that epic penalty shoot-out win over Dundee United to set up a Hampden return against Rangers, the winners of the Championship.
Gunnarsson said: “Our preparation for the final was great. We went to Cameron House Hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond and spoke about the game not as a final but as just a normal game.
“We felt it would be a good day for us. It turned out tougher than I believed after Stokesy had scored so early on but I think Rangers played in a naive way after going ahead with that great goal from Andy Halliday.
“If you try to play out from the back and the other team are pressing high up the pitch it can be difficult, Manchester City went to Barcelona, for instance, tried it and were punished.
“We also knew Rangers weren’t very good at defending corners and when Stokesy levelled it from one and, when we got another in the last couple of minutes, we could see they were very nervous. It was a great moment for David Gray to score the winner. “We wouldn’t have cared who had done it but, for it to be the captain, an Edinburgh boy, possibly made it all the more special.
“Immediately after the final, I felt like one of the luckiest guys in football. I came to Hibs for six months on loan and ended a Scottish Cup winner when there had been so many players down through the years who didn’t manage to savour the joy of such an experience.”
Although he’s now playing in the Swedish capital, helping Djurgarden rise from 15th to seventh place in the Allsvenskan, Gunnarsson is aware of how the Scottish Cup continues to be the focus of great excitement as it’s paraded around the Capital and beyond in the club’s “Persevered Tour”.
He said: “I’ve seen a lot on Hibs TV, the likes of David taking it back to his old school and it’s great that everyone has an opportunity to see it, to touch and feel it. Who knows? Maybe in the future some of those youngsters who have done so will get the chance to play for Hibs and win it for themselves.
“I’ve yet to receive a copy of the DVD the club has produced although I’m told it’s been sent so I’m looking forward to watching it and reliving that weekend again. Hopefully, I’ll come back to Edinburgh and take in a game sometime soon.”