One Cup final is as good as it gets for most players so making it back-to-back visits to Hampden is certainly a remarkable achievement for Pat Fenlon’s Hibs, a feat the Easter Road outfit last managed 90 years ago.
However, incredibly for Eoin Doyle, Sunday’s Scottish Cup showdown with SPL champions Celtic will be his fifth successive final on what promises to be an emotional day for the Irishman as he pulls on a green-and-white jersey for the final time before heading for Chesterfield and League Two in England.
As you would expect, there is little the former Sligo Rovers hitman hasn’t experienced on such occasions. He’s seen it all. The bitter disappointment of losing the FAI Cup to Sporting Final having gone into the 2009 final as favourites; the joy of bouncing back to beat the odds of being underdogs to win a penalty shoot-out against Shamrock Rovers and then coping with the pressure of being expected to win – which they did again in a spot-kick drama – against Shelbourne.
Doyle maintained that unbroken run of cup finals in his first season in Edinburgh although, of course, it was all to end in tears for the team thrown together by Pat Fenlon, their eyes fixed solely on securing Hibs’ top flight status only to find themselves confronting arch-rivals Hearts amid all the hype of the first all-Edinburgh final for 116 years.
With relegation avoided only in the penultimate league match of the season, a side packed with loan signings and new arrivals such as Doyle – he was Fenlon’s first having succeeded Colin Calderwood as Hibs’ fifth manager in as many years – proved to be ill-equipped to deal with both the occasion and their near neighbours, the outcome one which will send a cold shiver up the spine of the east side of the Capital for many, many years to come.
Hearts fans have, naturally, continued to goad the green half mercilessly, Doyle revealing he had a taste of what was to come as he and his team-mates set out on that forlorn journey home only to find themselves caught in traffic and surrounded by Jambos who teased them non-stop all the way along the M8.
“It was nasty,” recalled Doyle. “You couldn’t look right or left, it was horrible. But hopefully this year we’ll be surrounded by Hibs supporters and we can celebrate all the way back to Edinburgh with them.”
Ending Hibs’ 111-year Scottish Cup hoodoo woould, of course, go a long, long way to exorcising the ghost of 2012, but Doyle recognises the enormity of the task facing Fenlon’s players. He said: “It will be a tough game. Celtic are massive favourites but I’ve been in this situation before, going into finals as both favourites and underdogs. I know what it takes to win either way, form goes out of the window on the day, it’s a one-off and whoever wants it more on the day will do it.”
Doyle has proved something of a Scottish Cup talisman for Hibs, scoring his firt goal for the club as they overcame Second Division Cowdenbeath as last season’s run got off to a somewhat shaky start, following that up with the winner against Kilmarnock. This season he stepped off the bench to claim the equaliser in that epic semi-final comeback against Falkirk after the First Division side had raced into a seemingly unassailable three-goal lead by half-time.
The emergence in recent weeks of youngsters such as Alex Harris, Danny Handling, Ross Caldwell and Jordon Forster has stepped up the competition for places, the fight for one of those coveted jerseys made all the tougher given Fenlon can only name five substitutes rather than the seven available to him for SPL matches.
Doyle said: “It’s going to be my last day as a Hibs player so it will be emotional, but I hope I can go south with a bang by bringing the Cup back to Leith. The first thing, though, is to try to get into the squad for the day. There’s too many players and not enough places so the lads have been giving their all in training this week.
“It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to along with the rest of the team.”
Although most would have bet against Hibs being back in the final this year, Doyle revealed the “road to Hampden” had been marked out as far back as last summer as Fenlon and his players set their targets for the season.
The 25-year-old said: “The squad sat down together and set the goals for the season. Having a good cup run was one of them. After the split we sat down again, set our sights on finishing seventh which we had achieved and, having won the semi-final, there is now one more goal to achieve and hopefully we can do that.
“I’ve been lucky enough in that this is the fifth year in a row I’ve been to a cup final but getting there two years in succession is something that doesn’t happen too often even at the bigger clubs. The important thing now is that we put on a much better performance than last year.”
Although well aware of how tough Sunday might prove to be, there’s a cautious optimism within Fenlon’s squad, a confidence boosted by their recent run of six matches unbeaten which culminated in those three successive wins over Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee.
But, Doyle revealed, the belief that he and his team-mates could defy the odds and make it back to Hampden began to grow when they were pitched against Hearts at the first time of asking. He said: “You always want to play in as many derbies as you can and it was nice knowing we’d knocked out the holders.
“It was still early in the campaign, of course, but the belief continued to grow. Gary Deegan scored that wonder goal against Aberdeen and Ben Williams pulled off a great penalty save, we went to Kilmarnock and Leigh Griffiths scored a hat-trick and then there was that semi-final with Falkirk.
“I came on when we were 3-0 down and knew I had to give the performance of my life to help us turn it around. It was great to keep the game alive with the equaliser and to have played a part in us going on to win.
“I think last year we had an easier run, this year has been difficult given the teams we have played, but hard work and belief have taken us to where we want to be and now it’s about taking that extra step.”
Doyle accepts his decision to move on will have raised some eyebrows but while admitting the chance to work under Paul Cook, his old boss at Sligo Rovers, again was a factor, he was reluctant to go too deeply into his reasons, insisting his entire focus is on Hibs and Sunday. He said: “It was a tough decision, I love this place, the club, the city, everything about it.
“It will be a new challenge for me. It looks to be the right move for me. When I told Pat Fenlon I’d be leaving I also told him I would continue to give 110 per cent from that day until the end of the season.
“It’s not in my character to slacken off and I do not feel I have let him down.
“It would be nice to play a part in it all on Sunday but, first and foremost, I want to see us win the cup.”