There’s little doubt Hibs have enjoyed a touch of good fortune when it comes to this season’s Scottish Cup. Four times their name has gone into the hat and on each occasion the Easter Road outfit have found themselves avoiding Premiership opposition.
Championship rivals Alloa Athletic and League Two outfits Arbroath and Berwick Rangers have all been disposed of, leaving Alan Stubbs’ players contemplating tomorrow’s semi-final at Hampden against, like themselves, another second-tier club in Falkirk, who have also enjoyed a cup run without coming up against any “big guns”.
As head coach Stubbs has confessed, it was the draw both Hibs and the Bairns would have wanted, neatly sidestepping top-flight opposition yet again, raising the tantalising prospect of a return to the national stadium at the end of next month for the final itself when, at last, they will face a Premiership side, either Celtic or Inverness Caley.
But while appreciating the luck of the draw, defender Liam Fontaine insists it is anything but luck that has taken Hibs thus far. He said: “No matter who you meet round-by-round you have to put the results on the board.
“We’ve had games where people will have been looking for us to be on the wrong end of an upset because everyone loves a cup shock and we’ve all seen them happen. But we’ve approached every match professionally, the gaffer has made sure we’ve been well prepared for each of them, as we are every week, we’ve gone into the games with the right mindset and come out of them with the right result.”
Fontaine is well aware, of course, that Peter Houston’s Falkirk are, as yet, the only Championship side Hibs haven’t beaten this season, the Bairns emerging from the three fixtures with two 1-0 wins and a 3-3 draw following a spirited fightback at Easter Road from being 3-1 down.
But having finally got the better of Capital rivals Hearts at the fourth time of asking, the former Bristol City star firmly believes Stubbs’ players can repeat that feat tomorrow.
He said: “I think the bald statistics don’t tell the true story behind the games. We’ve had a few games over the season where our performances have been great but we haven’t got the results we deserved. We’d felt we’d deserved more out of the previous derbies and we don’t feel the results against Falkirk reflect the way we played against them.
“So to beat the winners of the league and deservedly so while keeping a clean sheet was great for the confidence, while Jason Cummings and Farid El Alagui will be on a high having got the goals against Hearts.”
Fontaine believes the return of El Alagui, back after almost seven months out with a ruptured Achilles tendon, against his old club, the French-born Moroccan having scored 27 goals in 43 appearances in his solitary season with the Bairns, has given Hibs a massive lift as they prepare to do battle in the play-offs while aiming to make it a third Scottish Cup final in four years.
The 29-year-old said: “Everyone knows Farid is a massive threat, not least the people at Falkirk. He’s a very strong guy and you don’t want to come up against him when he is going full throttle. It’s great to see him back after all he has been through. You need to have watched his rehabilitation, how hard he’s had to work.
“People didn’t see that. He’s worked his socks off from a really severe injury, so I was delighted to see him get his goal against Hearts. He’d come close a couple of times against Dumbarton a few days earlier but his finish in the derby was fantastic and thoroughly deserved.”
Fellow defender Jordon Forster, too, has made a return to first-team action after suffering a broken bone in his foot and then needing an operation to remove his appendix, and with right back David Gray out with a hamstring injury and on-loan players Keith Watson and Martin Boyle cup-tied, Fontaine believes that underlines the strength in depth within Stubbs’ squad.
He said: “Jordon had those fitness problems and then we were going well as a team so he found himself on the bench. But the fact he’s slotted back in as if he has never been away is testament to his professionalism, the way he’s continued to train so hard.
“Like Farid he is a great asset to have back. I think we’ve utilised our squad well.”
While admitting his description of tomorrow’s clash as “just another game” was one of football’s oldest clichés, Fontaine insisted: “We’ve prepared normally for the game, no different to any other we’ve had all season. I think when you start to try to change things that’s when you can potentially slip up. We’ve kept things the same for every game and for the majority of the season we have been very consistent.”
Having played for Bristol City in the 2008 Championship play-off against Hull City at Wembley, Fontaine admitted he was desperate to play at Hampden, a ground he’d only ever visited once as part of a guided tour.
He said: “Outwith international players there’s not too many who can say they’ve played at both Wembley and Hamdpen. I’ve seen the pictures around Easter Road and at East Mains of the scenes following the League Cup win in 2007 and having heard the fans belting out Sunshine on Leith at the end of the derby, it would be great to hear that again tomorrow knowing we’ll be going back to Hampden again for the final itself.”
And of the obligatory question regarding Hibs’ well-documented 113-year wait for the Scottish Cup, Fontaine said: “That’s history. To play in a Scottish Cup final would be great and that’s what we all want to do.
“When I came up here last summer I said I wanted to achieve things. The hunger and desire is there, not just among the players, but the gaffer, the coaching staff, everyone at Easter Road.”