Hibs v St Johnstone final word: Stony-faced legends, no exuberance - and when season's shine will come back
If, at the start of the season, Hibs fans had been offered a third-place finish and European qualification along with reaching the last four of the League Cup and final of the Scottish Cup, the chances are 95 per cent of them would have taken it with no further discussion.
On paper, this has been one of the finest campaigns by an Easter Road side in the last 50 years. There have been many individual triumphs and team gains, but at this moment in time, those achievements will offer little comfort to shell-shocked supporters who feel let down at the end of a campaign that has fizzled out rather than ending on a high.
Completing a season against the background of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been without its difficulties. Bounce games to help players returning from injury have been virtually impossible to arrange; team bubbles have made it harder to integrate youngsters. The list goes on ...
Yet despite that, this Hibs team had enough about it to finish third behind Rangers and Celtic. Martin Boyle, Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet came close to scoring 50 collective goals across all competitions which is impressive when considering Doidge embarked on a 14-game league run without a goal; Nisbet scored just twice in 13 Premiership games around the mid-season point and Boyle had three spells totalling 18 league matches in which he contributed neither goal nor assist.
Both Boyle and Nisbet both had their off-field issues this term and yet still managed to contribute on an individual and group basis.
The meteoric rise of Josh Doig is another positive from a season like no other. So too a first win at Pittodrie in nearly a decade. European football as well, and the latter stages of both cup competitions – all in Jack Ross’ first full season as head coach.
So why does it not feel like a season to celebrate?
There may be more of a disconnect between the club and the fans; understandable given supporters have been locked out of stadiums for the past year. The manner of some defeats has been hard to take, while the club’s apparent inability to come from behind to win games – save for away wins against Cove Rangers in the Betfred Cup and Ross County in March – has been equal parts baffling and infuriating.
Most galling about the cup final defeat was the manner of the defeat. This is a team that should have been playing with swagger, with confidence. Instead they looked flat, timid – nervous, even – about facing a side that has arguably had Hibs’ number in 2021.
Had Hibs lost this final 4-3, or on penalties, the reaction from fans would not have been as vitriolic.
Supporters are hurting because it seems that lessons were not learned from previous encounters with the Saints. There was no ace up Ross’ sleeve; no tactical tweak to catch the McDiarmid Park side cold. Hibs’ key men were locked out; the midfield ponderous, and the defence struggling to cope with the rapid counter-attacks that have been a hallmark of the Easter Road side’s play this season.
Disappointing, too, was the lack of reaction to Matt Macey’s fine penalty save from Glenn Middleton and crucial follow-up block from Chris Kane. That should have sparked Hibs into life and spurred them into action, but there was more relief at not being further behind than belief they could haul themselves back into the game.
Hibs fans wanted a big ending to the season; a cup and third-place double to toast ahead of another European jaunt. Instead, 2020/21 ended in the most underwhelming fashion: a Christmas cracker that failed to bang when pulled.
The Time for Heroes banner synonymous with the 2016 cup win returned to Hampden but there was no last-minute winner, no performance for the ages a la Anthony Stokes, no sprint and knee-slide from a member of the coaching staff, no exuberance.
David Gray, the hero of May 21, 2016, sat stony-faced in the stand alongside Darren McGregor, another colossus from that historic day. Behind them was Scott Allan, suited and booted as a result of being cup-tied and ineligible to play. How Hibs could have done with one of, or all three, players on the pitch.
This squad has still written its own history by finishing third and reaching the latter stages of both cup competitions and in time, fans will surely come to accept that.
It is difficult in the aftermath of such an ignominious cup final defeat to look at the positives – but there have been plenty this season.
In a little under two months Hibs will be back in action, contesting the maiden Europa Conference League qualifiers. Eight weeks doesn’t seem like much, but a week can be a long time in football.
There is plenty about which to be positive at Easter Road. The club is in good hands under Ron Gordon’s leadership, European football and a team that finished third is an attractive proposition for potential signings, and fans will be returning to grounds sooner rather than later. A return to normality is hopefully just around the corner.
If the club can build on this season by finishing in the top three or four each year, and reaching the latter stages of both cup competitions, then supporters will begin to put this weekend’s disappointment behind them.
Teams don’t finish third or consistently reach the last four, or indeed the final, of cup competitions by accident. Hibs will be back, and provided they can deliver on the park, there is a good chance that all will be forgiven.