Hibs boss Alex McLeish was well aware that a good start against Dundee United in this CIS Cup quarter-final was necessary, not only for Tam McManus but his entire team following recent disappointments.
He couldn’t have asked for a better start with the opening goal, supplied by McManus, coming after just 51 seconds.
If the 20-year-old striker had his critics for not being clinical enough in front of goal – his miss in the derby win over Hearts remained vivid in the memories of many fans – he did much to silence them with one nod of his blond head. McManus reacted as David Zitelli’s long-range free-kick reared up into the air off United’s Danny Griffin, racing in to power a glorious header beyond Scotland under-21 team-mate Paul Gallacher.
You could almost feel the relief flood through not only the players but the paltry crowd, an attendance of just 8825 (Easter Road’s lowest of that season) probably explained by a combination of factors, recent results, the weather and confusion over whether this was an all-ticket match or not.
Hibs ruled the roost for almost the entire match, the visitors restricted to just one clear shot on Tony Caig’s goal, an effort from Jim Hamilton which didn’t arrive until late in the match. By that time United weren’t just down but out, Paco Luna having controlled Hamilton’s block from a McManus flick-on before gleefully lashing it high into the net from a couple of yards out.
The United players were incensed, convinced the Spaniard had used an arm, and referee Kevin Toner found himself surrounded by a posse of angry tangerine shirts, Charlie Miller venting his fury to such an extent he was shown a red card.
Hibs might have made it three, substitute Garry O’Connor showing early promise, as he coolly slotted the ball past Gallacher, only to see assistant referee Willie Dishington, wrongly, raise the offside flag.
No matter, before the match Hibs would have taken a win of any sorts far less a comprehensive demolition of a side which was well-suited to absorbing pressure and hitting on the break, particularly in a cup tie.
And with a big month coming up as they sought to get their league season back on track starting with the trip Celtic next (they lost 3-0) it was an important result, giving Hibs a fourth visit to Hampden in the space of 18 months and a much-needed boost to morale.
The mobility of McManus and Luna caused United all sorts of problems as did the intelligent running of David Zitelli, the French ace unlucky not to find himself on the scoresheet as he bombarded Gallacher’s goal with a succession of in-swinging corners.
Hibs went on to lose their semi-final to Ayr United 1-0 with Franck Sauzee as boss.