For 45 minutes Hampden tantalisingly beckoned. But in an instant the dream was gone, a night which began with so much promise ending in despair for Colin Calderwood and his players.
Falkirk and Ayr United had already all but blown this season’s Scottish Communities League Cup wide open, Hibs knowing that if only they could steer their way past Celtic then, with Kilmarnock the only other remaining top-flight team remaining, they could begin to harbour notions of cup glory once again.
Such hopes were raised after just four minutes of this quarter-final clash, when Celtic defender Daniel Majstorovic could only deflect Ivan Sproule’s low shot across goal into his own net, the big Swede in the process claiming Hibs’ 750th strike in the competition which stretches back to the 1946/47 season. With both teams boasting defences less than watertight it was perhaps not much of a shock that there was such an early goal, but possibly even more surprising was the fact it was the only one of a first half in which each side threatened to score virtually every time they ventured forward.
Both back fours were reshaped, Celtic’s through an ever-growing injury list which had claimed Glenn Loovens and Charlie Mulgrew at the weekend, and Hibs enforced with on-loan Hoops defender Richie Towell ineligible while new father Sean O’Hanlon failed to shake off a knock from Paisley.
Perhaps it was that unfamiliarity which offered so many opportunities but more likely the fact that, as good as both Hibs and Celtic can be, when on the attack they are always likely to present the opposition with more than a few glimpses of their goal.
Celtic posted a fair number of warnings, Gary Hooper sliding Beram Kayal’s low cross wide, Anthony Stokes clipping the outside of the post and then nodding a close-range header over as they sought an equaliser.
But equally Hibs posed their own dangers on the counter attack, Sproule firing a rising shot over as did Isaiah Osbourne while Junior Agogo just couldn’t quite get on the end of Sproule’s through ball before a superlative spot from Garry O’Connor, matched only by the pass he delivered to the unmarked Leigh Griffiths which presented the on-loan Wolves striker with the opportunity to all but kill the game off.
O’Connor’s vision left the Scotland Under-21 hitman, who had claimed his first two goals for Hibs in the 3-2 win over St Mirren at the weekend, with only Fraser Forster to beat but he was left hanging his head in disbelief as, having taken a poor touch, he saw the goalkeeper block his shot.
A second goal at that stage, just three minutes from half-time, might not have totally finished Celtic but it would have left them with a massive hurdle to overcome but, argued Hibs boss Calderwood, the turning point was not that incident but the Glasgow outfit’s equaliser.
And like the second and third goals which were to follow in quick succession, Calderwood was left bemoaning his side’s defensive deficiencies once again as James Forrest accepted Stokes’ lay-off to wrong foot Paul Hanlon before hammering the ball beyond Mark Brown who, despite those first-half chances created by Celtic, had up to that point had little to do.
As Lennon and his players celebrated less than two minutes into the second period you sensed Hibs had let a great chance slip, Forrest ensuring that would be the case as he broke through Hanlon’s tackle before playing a wall pass with Stokes to make it two.
The Republic of Ireland forward got his customary goal against his old club – his fifth in as many matches since switching to Glasgow – as he rose to nod home Sung Yueng Ki’s corner 11 minutes later, Hooper rubbing salt into Hibs’ wounds with a fourth.
Calderwood said: “We really spurned an opportunity for a big result and that’s very, very disappointing. They had opportunities in the first half but it is the timing of the goal, their equaliser, and the way the game just went from us. From set-up play we should be able to defend a lot, lot better, that is as disappointing as it is disturbing.
“The goals we conceded made it really hard.”
The game was already well gone when Hibs found themselves down to ten men, Sproule picking up a second yellow card as he brought down Mark Wilson, his first having arisen from a touchline spat which saw both him and Kayal booked although referee Willie Collum could easily have defused the flashpoint with a word of warning rather than reaching into his pocket.
However it left Hibs facing almost 20 minutes a man short and against a rampant Celtic side which Lennon claimed had turned in “exactly the type of performance I have been asking them for,” in that second half before predicting there’s even more to come from them.
Lennon’s assertion won’t do anything to salve the wounded pride of Calderwood and his players given they face Celtic again on their own patch on Saturday, the Glasgow outfit no doubt salivating at the thought while fans of the Capital outfit will be viewing the prospect with more than a little trepidation.
The Celtic boss said: “We won’t get complacent but if we play like that we will be hard to stop. I asked them how it felt because it was sensational to watch. They should take a lot from it but I’d like to think there’s more to come from this team.”
For his part, Calderwood knows time is against him as he tries to lift morale and convince his players they won’t be travelling along the M8 on an impossible mission. But, he insisted, rather than fear the journey, they’ll be looking forward to it.
He said: “It’s something we will have to accept, get over and rebound from. No-one will remember the first half, that hurts and it will effect people’s perception of what we are trying to be.
“We’ll get back to work, Saturday is a good game and everyone will be looking forward to it. It’s the ones that can play with intelligence and no fear, who want to play, run and do their jobs, and be manly out there.
“They are the ones that will hopefully take us to a better result on Saturday.”