How Hibs' re-wrote their tale of Hampden woe at third attempt, with Scottish Cup semi-final win over Dundee United
Hibs had grown weary of discussing the disappointments endured in the last couple of semi-finals but it is unlikely they will have the same hang-ups when they are asked to relive this one.
This was the Easter Road club’s third semi-final this term, thanks to the final rounds of last season’s Scottish Cup being held over due to lockdown, and while the previous two had ended in disappointment, this time they were worthy winners against Dundee United and moved safely through to the competition’s May 22 conclusion.
The last time they lifted the trophy was five years ago and they got the better of United at the semi-final stage that year, too, but if that head to head had served up cult heroes, agonising misses and the high drama of a penalty shoot-out, this performance was more straightforward.
In a campaign that continues to promise so much, this display summed up Hibs’ strengths. It also highlighted the areas United manager Mickey Mellon will have to address ahead of the next campaign.
A superb front-running side, the first goal was always likely to play an important role in the outcome of this game and having got it, Hibs only complaint about their first half performance was that they might have been even further ahead, such was their grip on possession and their advantage when it came to attempts on goal.
While both sides can boast a trio of attacking options, the capital side proved the better at ensuring a regular supply of ammunition.
Some of that came from the better balance in the side and the support work of the men around them, but a lot of it came from the forwards’ own hard graft, as they linked up and poked and probed for a way through.
They proved more clinical in that regard than their counterparts at the other end of the pitch, who lack service, especially from the wide areas, and were marshalled more closely by a Hibs midfield and defence determined to provide their forwards with a solid foundation to build from.
It paid off and Martin Boyle was, once again, in rampaging form on the right wing as he surged at the opposition rearguard with the pace and fizz guaranteed to cause panic.
Up front, Nisbet who is now hoping for a run of positive results in the national stadium, following up a cup final win with a place in Scotland’s Euros squad, and his striker partner Christian Doidge did the damage.
The opener came in the 27th minute when a long ball out of defence was not cleared properly by fullback Liam Smith, who was under pressure from Aussie international Jackson Irvine. Failing to get any distance on his header, Irvine gratefully brought it down and squared it to Nisbet at the end of the area. Showing all the composure of one of the nations’ top strikers, he took his time and, opting for precision over power, sidefooted his finish low into the bottom corner of Deniz Mehmet’s goal to give the Leith side the advantage their play merited.
For a team who have yet to lose from a winning position this term, it was the perfect start to exorcise the demons of past semi final losses.
But if that goal was pertinent, the second one was definitive. It was also mouthwatering. The fact it should also have been fagged offside can almost be forgiven given the beauty and fluidity of the contributions made by Boyle, Nisbet and then Doidge.
It was the slickness of the move that probably caught the assistant referee off guard and caused him to miss the infringement, as Boyle flicked a pass to Nisbet and set off and running so that he could collect the Scotland striker’s delightful back heel, played neatly into the Aussie’s path.
It all happened in the blink of an eye as he then slipped the ball through to Doidge, who hit a crisp clinical finish low into the net. It was a goal that spoke to their understanding and maintained the Welshman’s record of scoring in every round of the current run.
The offside decision will, understandably, annoy Dundee United but, if they are being honest, they left Hampden knowing they were a poor second-best regardless of that goal.
There had been no changes in the United starting line up. That meant that while they kicked-off with the same team that had been impressive as they bettered Aberdeen in the previous round, it was also the side that had struggled against relegation-threatened Ross County in league last weekend.
Hibs, on the other hand, had juggled personnel, making three switches from the team that lost to St Johnstone last week. But there were no real surprises. Matt Macey, fresh from signing a new contract came back in as the club’s recognised cup keeper, top scorer Nisbet was reinstalled in place of Drey Wright, having recovered from an ankle knock and, with Alex Gogic out injured Melker Hallberg was the obvious replacement in midfield.
Jamie Murphy returned to the squad but was reserved for a late substitute appearance.
By the time he came on with seven minutes remaining, his colleagues had obtained an unassailable lead, although his services may be needed midweek.
A side fighting on two fronts, with third place still to be secured, the only thing that will have troubled a thrilled Hibs manager Jack Ross is the injuries picked up by key players Joe Newell, Ryan Porteous and Nisbet , who all came off early.
With the trip to Pittodrie on Wednesday offering them the chance to cement third place and prevent their season-long quest going all the way to the final game of the campaign, they could do with the main men being fit and able to help see the job over the line.
That would allow them to focus fully on the Scottish Cup final and the fulfilment of a dream season.