Hibs can surpass 2016 achievement as they close in on best season since 1950s
Hibs enjoyed their latest visit to the national stadium, as they made it beyond the last-four stage of a national cup competition.
Their third attempt of this term, including the lockdown-affected conclusion to last year’s Scottish Cup contest which had been held over to this season, they had grown weary of reliving those disappointments, frustrated by how big a shadow they had often cast over what could still be a historic season.
Having earned the opportunity to right some wrongs, they did so with relative assurance, living up to their loftier standing and ousting Mickey Mellon’s Dundee United side to book their spot in the final.
But the result in the other semi-final was a reminder that the job they gave themselves at the start of the season is still far from done.
“It was obviously an amazing feeling at full-time and the changing room was absolutely bouncing for a while after the game,” said the winning captain Paul Hanlon.
A member of the 2016 Scottish Cup winning side, he says the campaign has the capacity to surpass all previous achievements, given that he has already bagged his first Scotland cap and the club has the opportunity to lodge its most successful season since the 1950s, when only winning the title could trump a third place finish combined with cup success and another semi-final.
“Everyone has worked so hard to get to this stage – and we’re now one step closer to lifting to the trophy.
“Everyone was on a massive high but we knew we had to come down to earth quickly.”
They made fairly straightforward work of easing their way past their Tannadice foes. Given the proven qualities as a frontrunning team, Kevin Nisbet’s 27th goal calmed any jitters while the fortuitous absence of an offside call when they grabbed a wonderfully-worked and executed second goal offered them a cushion that they, ultimately, did not need, such was their control of proceedings.
But they will now have to find a way to better a St Johnstone side that they know are stubbornly difficult to break down when they turn up for their second Hampden face-to-face of the season on May 22.
It was Callum Davidson’s men who ended their League Cup run at the semi-final stage, as the Perth side progressed to lift the silverware.
The fact that Hibs had played well without scoring in the first half of that tussle only to under-perform so badly in the second half left them nursing regrets as well as a bruised heart and that must have been in their minds as they moved through the first half an hour of Saturday’s game.
Dominating possession, they had more chances than their opponents. Again, on that Hampden stage, they had struggled to translate that into goals. But, this time, neither the bar nor the post could deny them as they had in the previous matches, and there would be no room for regrets on the bus home.
Saturday proved that Jack Ross’ men can deal with pressure and served as yet another example of their desire to be successful. The fact that they are sitting third in the league – a position they hope to lock in as their final finishing place when they travel to face challengers Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Wednesday, is testament to that. The fact they can add a final to two semis underlines it.
“Questions have been asked of us because we’re a big club,” accepts Hanlon. “But, we’ve been getting ourselves in these situations time and time again.
“Unfortunately, twice this season we came out on the wrong end of the result. But that didn’t change our belief, going into this semi-final, that we had enough ability in our squad to get to the final.
“I think we proved the quality we have in attacking areas, the hard work all over the park – and we were rewarded for that. “
Both Hibs and Dundee United can boast a quality frontline but where the teams differ is the ability to supply them with enough ammunition to do damage, from the flanks, and through the middle, and the ability to repel trouble at the other end.
Early on United released Harkes, as first Lawrence Shankland and then Marc McNulty fed him inviting balls but he couldn’t convert and Hibs soon marshalled his advances.
The two strikers engineered another opening after an hour but Matt Macey parried and Jamie Robson’s volleyed effort trundled wide. By then Hibs were two-up and it could have been more.
Liam Smith struggled with a clearance and Jackson Irvine capitalised, playing the ball to Nisbet who coolly finished low into the net.
The second came in the 58th minute and was the result of Hibs’ slick passing, movement and easy understanding, as Boyle and Nisbet flicked, back-heeled and passed their way through to Christian Doidge at a pace the officials obviously found it impossible to keep up with and the Welshman shrugged off offside appeals and slotted home.
It was a devastating demonstration of their potency and the bit of luck counterbalanced the referee’s unwillingness to play advantage later on when Boyle was fouled on the edge of the area when Doidge could have finished.
“They just have a great balance, the three of them,” said Hanlon. “The raw pace of Boyle just terrorises defenders, Doidge will put in a shift, win all the battles in the air – but, as you saw against United, his finishing is also different class, and Nisbet has that football intelligence we’ve seen all season, as well as being deadly in front of goal.
“We just need to keep them as fresh as possible.”
Keeping everyone fit is the biggest concern, with Nisbet, Joe Newell and Ryan Porteous all picking up knocks.
Given the rewards on the table, no-one will want to be sat on the sidelines as this season reaches a conclusion.