Most Hibees will cherish the 2007 League Cup final triumph forever, but Alan Combe wishes he could erase it from history.
The current Hibs goalkeeping coach was between the sticks for Kilmarnock when they faced the Easter Road side in the final nine years ago. Despite growing up as a Hibs fan, there were no divided loyalties on the day for Combe. In what was the first – and only – final of his playing career, his full focus was on thwarting John Collins’ team and taking the trophy back to Ayrshire. Although some of his family were in the Hibs end, the majority of his nearest and dearest were in the main stand supporting him.
In the end, the whole occasion unravelled spectacularly for the Leither as Hibs cantered to a 5-1 win in the Hampden snow. A late misjudgment from Kilmarnock’s keeper which let Steven Fletcher score the fifth merely exacerbated one of the darkest days of his career. “It was a horrible day,” said the 41-year-old, speaking from Hibs’ pre-League Cup final training camp on the Costa del Sol. “If you’re a professional footballer and you get beat 5-1 in a final, that’s never good. It wasn’t nice for a good couple of weeks after that.”
Combe was so cut up about the defeat that he had to get off the pitch as soon as the final whistle sounded. He meant no disrespect to the victorious Hibs players but felt the need to blow off some steam in the bowels of Hampden’s main stand before returning to the pitch to watch Easter Road captain Rob Jones collect the trophy.
“Because of the game finishing the way it did, I had a few emotions in me so I shook everybody’s hand and ran straight up the tunnel to the changing room,” he explained. “I wasn’t being disrespectful but I needed to get away for a few minutes so I went into the dressing-room. I then came back out for the awkward bit where you have to stand there and watch the Hibs boys lift the cup. They deserved it. We could have been 2-0 up in the first 20 minutes but after that it was pretty emphatic for them.”
Since becoming goalkeeping coach at Hibs in summer 2014, Combe has found escaping memories of his career’s lowest moment to be a tad troublesome. In the corridors of both Easter Road and East Mains, pictures of Hibs players celebrating their glory day adorn the walls. In addition, mischievous kit man Tam McCourt has made it his personal mission to ensure Combe never forgets where he was between 3pm and 5pm on Sunday, March 18, 2007.
“There are pictures everywhere,” he said. “Right outside the coaches’ office there’s a picture of Rob Jones running away after the first goal, so I have to see that every day. They’re quite right to have the pictures up. They won a cup and they won it comfortably, so they’ve got to show it off. Thankfully, there are no pictures of the fifth one – the one where it took a bobble and I miskicked it.
“There’s a big picture in the kit room at Easter Road of the two teams before the game which was taken from the back of the main stand at Hampden. It’s a lovely big picture that shows the whole arena and because I had a red top on, you can pick me out straight away. Every time I walk in there, wee Tam’s like “who’s that, who’s that?”, pointing at me and winding me up about it. He brings it up all the time. You can look back now and have a laugh about it but it certainly wasn’t nice on the day.”
Combe, who was 32 at the time, regrets the way the whole day panned out. He admits to being so pent-up about the biggest game of his career that he wasn’t even able to enjoy the occasion before kick-off. “It was my first major final and I was probably a bit too focused,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy the day. When you get to a final, you should try and enjoy the occasion and then focus when the game kicks off. I wasn’t able to enjoy the crowd or anything like that when I was walking out. I was just looking at the ball and I was too focused. It’s easy in hindsight, but I would definitely approach it differently if I ever had to play a final again.”
Combe never got another shot at playing in a final. His only other experience of a Hampden showpiece match was the 2013 League Cup final when he was Hearts’ goalkeeping coach as they lost 3-2 to St Mirren. Sunday’s showdown with Ross County gives him a chance to banish some demons, even if he won’t be out on the pitch himself.
“It would mean everything to me to win on Sunday,” he explained. “You want success as a coach just as much as you want it as a player. This would mean as much to me as anything I did as a player. You want to be part of history and if you win a cup you go down in history. If you’ve played a part in that, it proves you’re doing something right.”
Combe’s main task is to ensure that Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley is as well prepared as possible for Sunday. The Englishman made a couple of errors as the Easter Road side endured a recent three-game losing streak in the league, but Combe has maximum belief in Oxley and has no concerns about his nerve wavering in the heat of Hampden battle. “I don’t worry about Mark,” he said. “It’s up to me now to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind. He’s a very, very strong character, so I know he’ll be focused on the day. In my opinion, the big man’s had a great season. He’s had a couple of blips in the last few weeks but they’re out of his mind and he’s totally focused on winning this cup. There’s no issues there at all.”