Black clouds hung over Edinburgh, but there was sunshine on Leith as Hibs clinched their third win in just six days, completing their post-split fixtures without defeat for the first time and ensuring themselves of the perfect send-off for Hampden.
David Wotherspoon’s powerful header 11 minutes from time was all that separated Pat Fenlon’s side from relegated Dundee, but, as Dens Park boss John Brown acknowledged, the margin could – and most probably should – have been far, far greater.
But just when he needed a couple of goals most in his bid to become the first Hibs player to hit the 30 mark since Alan Gordon and Jimmy O’Rourke 40 years ago, Leigh Griffiths’ scoring touch deserted him, the striker passing up the sort of opportunities which he’s buried without a second thought all season, although, it has to be said, it took a brilliant stop from Dundee goalkeeper Steve Simonsen without which the floodgates might just have opened.
The heavens certainly had before kick-off, prompting referee Brian Colvin to take a close look at the sodden pitch before giving the thumbs up, Hibs boss Fenlon reckoning the downpour had actually contributed to the slick passing he thereafter enjoyed, rather than causing any problems.
“We were looking for a performance and I think we got one,” said Fenlon, buoyed also by another three points which secured Hibs in seventh place in the SPL table, a finish which will earn the Easter Road outfit some £320,000 more in SPL bonus money than they received last season, and the fact no further injuries had been sustained the week before the Scottish Cup final and Celtic.
While Neil Lennon’s Hoops will rightly be regarded as firm favourites to lift the trophy there is, however, a growing feeling that Hibs, having suffered something of a slump in the league from Christmas until recent weeks, are hitting form just at the right time.
That epic semi-final comeback against Falkirk appears to have acted as something of a catalyst, galvanising an Easter Road side which has now clocked up six matches undefeated, culminating in this trio of victories over Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee.
“We probably couldn’t have asked for any more to be honest,” agreed Fenlon. “We spoke about that when we won the semi-final about giving ourselves momentum and confidence going into the final and the players have responded really well to that.
“It would have been easy to limp our way through to the final, but we have had some decent performances.”
And those displays have presented Fenlon with something of a headache as he contemplates the 11 who will start against Celtic and the five more to occupy the bench, the manager admitting it has become more like a migraine with youngsters Alex Harris, Ross Caldwell, Danny Handling and, over the course of the past few days, Jordon Forster, all staking their own claims for inclusion.
Wotherspoon himself could almost be bracketed in that category, not on the basis of age, but the fact he’s found himself enjoying limited game time over the past couple of months. To that end, Wotherspoon couldn’t have timed his goal any better, coming in off the right flank to meet Lewis Stevenson’s cross and bullet a header across Simonsen and into the far corner of the net.
The midfielder, who endured the heartache of not even making the bench for last year’s final, said: “I can’t ever remember scoring a header before. It’s perfect timing with the final coming up.
“I’ve been coming on as a sub recently and I started against Kilmarnock. It has been good to get those run-outs and hopefully I can get a spot in that squad. Last year I didn’t enjoy it at all, and I missed out on the semi-final as well this year which was a bit of a disappointment.
“But its really competitive for a place. The young kids have been brilliant since coming in.”
Fenlon, naturally, wasn’t going to show his hand ahead of the Hampden showdown. The manager admitted he had a bit more than the nucleus of the team which will face Celtic in his head and insisted he still had plenty of food for thought to digest over the coming days.
He said: “They have certainly have given me plenty of headaches, but that’s what I want. I asked all the players to make sure if they got an opportunity to play that they give themselves a chance to be in the squad.
“I was delighted for David because he has been up and down this season. But he is a good lad, he works very hard and it was a fantastic finish – I didn’t think he could head the ball like that.
“However, it’s going to be the same as last year, people will miss out – that’s the nature of the game. You have 18 for league games and only 16 for the cup which is unusual, but these are the harsh decisions I have to make. They’ll be made in the best interests of the club, you think of the best squad to win the game.”
Also coming into Fenlon’s thoughts will be club skipper James McPake, who, like Tim Clancy, is battling to prove his fitness, and Kevin Thomson, rested against Dundee as the Irishman rotated his squad once more, making seven changes from the starting line-up at Rugby Park in midweek, meaning the goal hero that night, Eoin Doyle, had to settle for a cameo role on this occasion.
It mattered little as Hibs proved to be the superior side by a distance, Harris burrowing his way deep into Dundee’s penalty area only to delay his shot by a split second and see the chance disappear with a Declan Gallagher challenge, before Simonsen pulled off that wonder save from Griffiths, referee Colvin waving away his claims for a penalty as he saw his effort from the rebound crash off Gary Irvine.
Griffiths was equally profligate after the interval, bringing down Paul Hanlon’s superb through ball only to fire wide with only Simonsen to beat. Stevenson fired high over, a Griffiths cross just eluded Caldwell who also saw Simonsen get down to collect his netbound effort as Hibs swarmed unceasingly around their opponents’ penalty area. Hibs’ only moment of real concern was a Ryan Conroy volley which zipped across the face of Ben Williams’ goal and inches wide of his far post.
While conceding there was probably more incentive for Hibs in terms of cup final places, Dundee boss Brown was effusive in his praise for the way Fenlon’s players had gone about things: “All credit to Hibs. They were by far the better team.
“We never really created anything. Our goalkeeper has had to make two or three great saves to keep us in it.”