Hibs blew golden chance of ending long wait for Cup

Craig Sibbald wheels away after nodding home Blair Alston's cross for what proved to be the winner. Picture: John Devlin
Craig Sibbald wheels away after nodding home Blair Alston's cross for what proved to be the winner. Picture: John Devlin
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“It’s got to change, it’s inevitable, a matter of when, not if.”

Those words have echoed down through the years, repeated by successive Hibs managers who have invariably added: “I hope it is me,” as they bid to become the first since Dan McMichael in 1902 to lead the Easter Road club to Scottish Cup glory.

Now the current incumbent Alan Stubbs knows the first question he’ll be asked when next season’s competition kicks off will be the timeworn: “Could this be Hibs’ year?”

For 113 years now the emphatic answer has been a resounding “No,” Hibs beaten in ten finals and, following this defeat by Falkirk, losing out in a semi-final for the 18th time. Stubbs’ reply, just as inevitably, will be “Why not?”

And it is that eternal optimism which persuades the Hibs support to believe that one day, hopefully in their lifetimes, that dream will come true while, at the same time, resigning themselves to the fact that like all the generations who have gone before them, there appear to be some things that just aren’t meant to be.

The law of averages suggesting that one day Hibs will win the cup has been stretched beyond breaking point but, at the same time, you have to be in it to win it as they say, but even if they were to be going into this season’s final against surprise finalists Inverness Caley as underdogs, Stubbs and his players will today be kicking themselves that they don’t at least, have that opportunity.

“We have to blame ourselves,” sighed striker Farid El Alagui after Falkirk midfielder Craig Sibbald stole a march on Dylan McGeouch to meet Blair Alston’s cross and nod the ball beyond goalkeeper Mark Oxley for the only goal of the game.

El Alagui’s point was straightforward and simple, the well-worn truism that if you don’t put the ball in the net you don’t win football matches. To that end Stubbs’ players had plenty of opportunities to have earned themselves a third final appearance in four seasons. But through a combination of good goalkeeping from Jamie MacDonald – the former Hearts man enjoying another of those charmed afternoons he seems to have when facing Hibs – luck, and indifferent finishing, they failed to do so.

Twice Hibs hit the woodwork, MacDonald getting the faintest of touches on Fraser Fyvie’s shot to direct it onto the post, the ball then rebounding into his arms. Scott Allan then smacked a shot off the crossbar.

MacDonald also enjoyed slices of good fortune, the ball coming off his chest as David McCracken got his boot to the ball fractionally ahead of the diving El Alagui and then seeing the former Bairns hitman unable to get sufficient power on his header as he lay prone on the ground.

Luke Leahy cleared off the line after El Alagui’s battling qualities had carved out another half-chance, McGeouch mis-kicked in front of goal and then teed up Lewis Stevenson who blasted horribly over from 16 yards.

A goal was inevitable as Falkirk soaked up the pressure but when it came it silenced the 17,000 or so Hibs fans within Hampden, Sibbald’s header giving the Bairns something to hold on to in a frenetic finale.

Insisting he was as culpable as anyone for scorning the chance to have put the game beyond Peter Houston’s side long before then, El Alagui said: “As a striker you have to take responsibility and I take mine for not having put the team in a good position.

“It was very frustrating, they had a lot of players behind the ball. I think they had just one chance and it was a goal. I do not know how many chances we had, it’s ridiculous, but we have to blame ourselves.

“If you do not play well or don’t deserve to get through, fine. But when you have played well it’s very frustrating. It’s all about putting the ball in the net and if you don’t we have seen in the past what can happen.”

It has become a familiar scenario for Hibs over the course of this season, dominating games but being unable to finish off the opposition, and while Stubbs reacted to a question asking if he felt his side lacked an out-and-out striker by pointing out they do have the Championship’s leading goalscorer in Jason Cummings, he also admitted, not for the first time, that his players need to be more clinical in front of goal.

And while Hibs have clocked up 60 goals in 33 league matches Stubbs knows full well that is a figure which should be much higher if the ratio of chances converted was improved. Once again, though, Hibs’ vulnerability to conceding when being profligate at the other end was exposed, Stubbs assertion that his team had been unlucky accepted by Houston before the Bairns boss went on the attack suggesting that his opposite number should have a look at how his team lost, pointing out that all six goals Falkirk have scored against Hibs this season, winning three games and drawing another, have come from crosses.

Houston also felt his players deserved credit for the way in which they defended – as they were forced to do – while making the perfectly valid observation: “The most important thing is that we scored the goal to win the match.”

Stubbs, however, insisted: “I think my reaction is probably the same as a lot of people – disbelief; that you cannot create the number of chances we created in a game and not take at least one of them. From that point-of-view it’s disappointing but I think we controlled things for virtually the entire game and that makes it worse. But that’s semi-finals, it’s the worst time to lose in a competition because you are so close but so far away.

“I wish we’d had a bit of the luck the opposition had but we have to be more clinical. You have to be able to take at least one chance but an element of that was quite a bit of luck. You can maybe accept one coming back off the post into the keeper’s hands but there’s another rebound that goes into his hands when he’s on the floor and stranded.

“You maybe start to think it is going to be one of those days. Good luck to Falkirk in the final but we feel as if we have done more than enough for it to be us.

“I felt before they scored as if we were building momentum and it was just a matter of time before we scored. The players have played well, I cannot criticise them and I think there was only one team that deserved to be in the final. Unfortunately it’s not us.”