Ideally you go down swinging, with the glorious loser tag. Or it’s a hard-luck story, perhaps defined by a refereeing decision or being a plucky underdog just falling short against one of the big boys.
Unfortunately for Hibs, none of the above apply after coming second to St Johnstone in the 2021 Scottish Cup final.
There will be lorry-loads of regret in the Easter Road camp for some time after the 1-0 defeat at Hampden. After finishing third in the Premiership, the next step was a piece of silverware. Manager Jack Ross and his players were open about their target. There is no shortage of ambition. In the end, it was a shortage of quality that killed it.
A horrible opponent
St Johnstone have been a “bogey team” for Hibs for some years now, but their boss Callum Davidson and his history-making men have taken it to a new level this season. In football you get bad match-ups and Saints are as tough as it gets for Hibs.
The league table suggests Hibs are 18 points better than the Perth outfit. The reality is that, in 2021, St Johnstone have only lost four times – twice to Celtic, once to Rangers and Aberdeen – and have now added the Scottish Cup to the Betfred Cup. They are one of the best teams in Scotland right now. Hibs’ defeat is not as sensational as some would have you believe.
This isn’t about making excuses for them, though, because by dint of having a bigger budget and more internationalists in their ranks, the onus is on them, as favourites, to find a way to beat St Johnstone. Davidson doesn’t have his players being linked with big-money moves away from his club. Arsenal are not watching Callum Booth. Yet Hibs failed. They were nowhere near their best, in part nullified by their opponent but also guilty of being too blunt at the business end of the pitch.
We will never truly know why Hibs “didn’t turn up”, in the eyes of so many fans. Were they nervous? Naturally. But so were St Johnstone. Did Ross get his tactics wrong, or did the players fail to execute the game-plan correctly? Did Hibs’ big players just fail to find their A-game? All of the above probably applies. This is sport, this is what happens.
Some knives are being sharpened
The inquest begins regardless though and Ross is in the firing line – again. Three Hampden defeats in the past 12 months have left a vocal number of Hibbies smarting and questioning whether Ross will ever have what it takes to get Hibs over the line in the biggest matches of them all. Aside from beating United, there are three Hampden losses on his card, plus two Wembley defeats with Sunderland. One win out of six is an uncomfortable “showpiece” record for the 44-year-old.
Some the ghosts of the delayed 2019/20 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Hearts last Hallowe’en and the last-four Betfred Cup loss to St Johnstone in February were vanquished by beating Dundee United at the national stadium earlier this month. Dissenting voices had also been hushed by Hibs’ charge to third place in the Premiership. Yet, rightly or wrongly, there is an element of the Hibs support who are quick to jump on Ross as soon as there is a setback. Already polls are flying around social media questioning his stewardship.
A bit of perspective
The raw emotion after a cup-final defeat is completely understandable, but it is important take a step back and look at what Ross has done for Hibs. He took over in the autumn of 2019, with the club flirting worryingly with relegation. He steadied the ship quickly, got Hibs up the table and clear of any danger before the pandemic struck. Since then, in a massively challenging Covid-19 world, he’s identified players to bring in, such as Kevin Nisbet, and improve to a point where (a) the team benefits and (b) the club will make millions on them. He has nurtured Scotland’s SWFA Young Player of the Year in Josh Doig, who is wanted by many clubs in England and abroad. Joe Newell has been reformed from a struggling left-winger to a widely-acclaimed central midfielder. He’s eked out every last drop from players such as Paul McGinn, Alex Gogic and Christian Doidge, allowing him to guide Hibs to their best league finish season 2005/06. The curve is going one way – Hibs are on an upward trajectory.
Ross, still reasonably young in managerial terms, is still developing himself in his role. He will be hurting badly right now, and analysing what he could have done better. Should he have matched St Johnstone and played with a back-three rather than a back-four? Was Melker Hallberg a better option in midfield than Gogic? A reasonable criticism would be that in five of the six matches against St Johnstone, Ross has been unable to find a way to beat them. Davidson has his number – but also the number of a lot of coaches in this country. I’d wager most Hibs fans would have settled on the team that ended up being selected. In fact, I’d wager almost all of the Hibs support would have taken a Betfred Cup semi-final, a Scottish Cup final, a third-place finish in the league and European qualification if offered that last August. Football can be warped at times, managers criticised for getting to within a stone’s throw of glory more than they would for say, a third-placed finish and gallant defeats earlier in the rounds. Hibs did not throw in a Brora, for example.
Some of the ire is also, understandably, being directed at Hibs’ much-vaunted three attacking amigos. Nisbet, Doidge and Martin Boyle did not cover themselves in glory with their performances. Let’s set this straight: many of Ross’ players let him down on the biggest stage of them all.
And whether some Hibs fans like it or not, Ross will also be preparing for next season and how to build on this successful campaign. It would be absolute madness for a club to change tracks after losing a cup final. Everyone else would give their right arm just to be in one.
Foundations – but a rebuild will be required
Ross has laid some strong foundations with what his team has done this year. There’s an argument that Hibs have actually overachieved with the resource at their disposal. Better Hibs teams have done less. Look at Ross’ bench and only Jamie Murphy was the real game-changer he could turn to – and he did so pretty quickly. Scott Allan’s illness has shorn Hibs of their most creative player, whose abilities are worth close to £1million at their peak. Many forget that Ryan Porteous – still only 22 – is playing his first full season for the club. For context, St Johnstone’s impressive captain Jason Kerr is 24, but in his third full top-flight season – and it shows.
Ross should have money to spend this summer. Nisbet is set to leave, chased by many clubs in England. Doig is a wanted man. Millwall eyed Porteous in the winter and are likely to bid again. Boyle’s reported £500,000 buy-out clause will attract suitors. Jackson Irvine is yet to sign a new contract. The funds from those potential transfers won’t all go to Ross, but owner Ron Gordon will back his man. Daniel Mackay is already signed up, a promising young forward from Inverness.
The 2020/21 campaign is already in the past and there’s a lot of hard work ahead for Ross. He clearly needs to enhance his squad, with midfield being the most pressing concern. He has Europe to look forward to, and a meek exit will not be tolerated from the Conference League qualifiers. Hearts are back in the Premiership, and Aberdeen could be reinvigorated by new manager Stephen Glass. On current form, St Johnstone will be in the mix for third place. Competition awaits. But there’s a very solid base to build on, and it would be bordering on cruel, let alone crazy, to let anyone else other than Ross try to build on it given what he’s achieved. Take away the pain of missing out on silverware and Hibs are in a much better place than most clubs right now.