Jorge Claros’ heart sank as he turned to see his number being raised aloft, his Scottish Cup final over before 45 minutes had been played as boss Pat Fenlon desperately tried to breath life into Hibs’ bid to win the trophy for the first time in 110 years.
Although skipper James McPake had brought the Easter Road outfit back into the game after Darren Barr and Rudi Skacel had struck early for Capital rivals Hearts, Fenlon pressed ahead with the change, sacrificing the Honduran midfielder and replacing him with Ivan Sproule. However, it was to no avail, Pa Kujabi’s trip on Suso Santana earning the Jambos a contentious penalty minutes into the second half – a blow from which Hibs never recovered as they ended the day humiliated, beaten 5-1, a crushing blow which will haunt Hibs and their fans for years to come.
And although he insists he’s put the events of that day behind him, it still clearly plays on the mind of Claros who, as he hopes for at least a small measure of revenge in Sunday’s fourth-round clash with the Jambos, admits he’s never felt so low after a game.
Having arrived along with a raft of other loan signings during the January transfer window, the fresh blood introduced by Fenlon with the sole intention, at least at that point, of ensuring Hibs’ survival in the SPL, the team thrown together by the Irishman contrived to find themselves with the opportunity to write their names into the club’s folklore by lifting the trophy.
As badly as it ended for everyone in green and white, the embarrassment of being substituted before half-time made May 19 at Hampden even more hurtful for a player who had enjoyed three cup wins in five finals in his homeland.
Today Claros revealed just how battered and bruised his pride had been saying: “Too be subbed off with less than 45 minutes played in a cup final is not good for any player. It was such a massive game, the first all-Edinburgh final in 116 years and we all knew how long it had been since Hibs won the cup.
“It was something of a fairytale for us, we’d spent the previous few months battling the threat of relegation so to get to the final meant it was a huge day. Obviously it didn’t start well with Hearts scoring twice but James McPake had just scored for us and put us back in the game when I saw the fourth official raise the board.
“I had to look twice when I saw the No. 8 being held up. I couldn’t believe it, I was asking ‘why me’ but as a professional football player you don’t question the manager’s decision. I watched the rest of the game from the dug-out and you think with the game now 2-1 we had a chance but when the referee gave them that penalty and sent Pa off it all went wrong for us.”
Claros escaped the postmortem and the recriminations which flew around the east end of the Capital all summer by jetting home the following day to see his wife Elsa and their new-born son Johann for the first time, prompting speculation that the 26-year-old wouldn’t return to Scotland to see out the second half of his 12-month loan spell from Honduran outfit Motagua. However, he insisted, there was never any doubt of a return. “I don’t know why, but a newspaper in Honduras started speaking of me not coming back to Hibs – but I was always going to be back here.”
Claros returned to find a host of his former team-mates gone, players such as Tom Soares, George Francomb, Roy O’Donovan and Matt Doherty who had, like himself, joined Hibs on loan, gone along with Garry O’Connor while the likes of Mark Brown, Sean O’Hanlon, David Stephens and Isaiah Osbourne departed before the new season properly got underway.
In their place came new faces as Fenlon set to work rebuilding the squad to his liking, initially signing goalkeeper Ben Williams, Tim Clancy, Alan Maybury, Gary Deegan and Paul Cairney with Shefki Kuqi and Tom Taiwo later arrivals. Amid the seemingly endless stream of comings and goings one question remained foremost in the mind of Hibs fans, was Fenlon’s new-look side up to the task in hand.
The same question, Claros admits, applied to himself, his performances having failed to convince most supporters, and when he didn’t feature on the opening day it seemed to confirm their suspicions that his time, too, was perhaps limited.
However, Lewis Stevenson’s broken toe sustained in the second match, the first Edinburgh derby of the season as the Capital’s big two slugged out a 1-1 draw at Easter Road, presented Claros with his chance, one he’s grabbed with both hands as he’s become an ever-present in the team which has taken the SPL by surprise, soaring from second bottom to second top with a few brief stays at the summit itself.
Claros has been a revelation, producing the form which he knew he was capable of and forming a formidable midfield partnership initially with Deegan and now alongside Taiwo after the former Coventry City ace had his jaw broken in an early morning attack outside a city centre nightclub.
There is, though, no secret to his new-found lease of life. He said: “I don’t think people fully appreciated how difficult it was for me last season. Elsa was pregnant with Johann, she was in Honduras, I was over here and that was preying on my mind. Then when Johann was born I didn’t see him for the first three months of his life, it was very hard. Now they are with, they come to every home game and Elsa is happy living in Edinburgh if not with the cold. She’s never experienced such low temperatures as this past week or so but I’m sure she’ll have me out shopping with her for a big fur coat.”
Joking aside, Claros is well aware of what Sunday means although with only Paul Hanlon, Stevenson, Leigh Griffiths and McPake surviving from the side which started the final only six months ago – Sproule was the sub who replaced him that day – he believes Hearts will come up against a totally different Hibs team even to the one they faced in early August.
Hearts, of course, haven’t lost in the last 12 derby fixtures – a statistic which draws a sharp intake of breath from Claros, before saying: “The final was last season and this is a new Hibs team. We’ve been playing well and it’s fantastic for the players and the fans to see the club at the top of the league. All the players are together, we are working hard and it’s much better than last season.
“Of course Sunday will be a tough game, the Hearts players have been very focused despite their problems off the pitch, but we definitely feel we can win and while that won’t take away what happened at Hampden it will, at least, be a start.”