Hamilton Accies had talked the talk, but it was Hibs who walked the walk, turning a deaf ear to the taunts and jibes of their Championship opponents to haul themselves within touching distance of Scottish Premiership survival.
A two-goal lead to take back to Easter Road for Sunday’s second leg of this Premiership Play-Off Final was probably more than Terry Butcher, his players and the 2700 fans who had followed them to New Douglas Park could ever have dreamt of – but it’s an advantage they undoubtedly deserve.
Now it will be a case of finishing Accies off, to bring an end to what has been a thoroughly miserable season from start to finish and perhaps bring a little promise of better things to come.
A cause for celebration or wild euphoria it wasn’t. Finishing 11th and dicing with relegation was, as chairman Rod Petrie admitted only a few days ago, far below not only expectations but the capabilities of the playing staff.
There was, though, a huge sense of relief, almost as if Hibs had defied the odds – or at least the statistics, which were stacked against them. Those facts had prompted claims from some in the Hamilton camp that Hibs were “running scared,” that Accies were the last team they wanted to be playing, that their confidence was low and they were struggling.
It wasn’t so much taking those words and ramming them down their opponents’ throat, but more a gentle reminder that talk can be cheap.
But all those facts and figures, one win in 19, only 31 goals scored in 38 games and just three in their last ten and so on evaporated on a night when Hibs took the lead in a match for the first time since February 15 – coincidentally the last time they’d won – and not only held onto it, but doubled it.
Butcher had asked which of his players would emerge a hero, so duly stepped forward 18-year-old Jason Cummings, the young striker who hadn’t managed a goal in 16 previous first team appearances despite having proved to be a prolific scorer for the club’s under-20 side.
He broke his duck in spectacular style, sending a glorious dipping shot from 30 yards over the head of Kevin Cuthbert and if that wasn’t enough, he repeated the trick with an equally audacious effort in clipping the ball not only over the goalkeeper but the two defenders in front of him, his shot clearly over the line before Accies’ Ziggy Gordon could boot it away.
It was the stuff of dreams for the former Hearts kid who, this time last year, was playing for Hutchison Vale and working as a gardener, but, he insisted, a moment he believed wasn’t too far away.
He said: “I thought I took the goals well, but everyone has helped me. The gaffer, the players and the fans all believe in me. I knew it was coming and now the first ones have gone in hopefully they are going to flood in for me. Fingers crossed.”
Cummings’ opener came, as Hamilton boss Alex Neil insisted, probably against the run of play. Accies dominated possession without carrying any real threat in the final third, which for a side that had scored 70 goals this season, 44 of them at home was, as Neil said, rather unusual.
But it was a scenario Butcher would have found distinctly familiar given Hibs’ recent propensity for not making the most of being on top and then being hit by a sucker punch.
Hamilton had certainly knocked the ball around well, looking far more comfortable on their plastic pitch despite the hours Hibs had put in on a similar surface at Spartans’ Ainslie Park complex, stretching play on the flanks and using the physical presence of former Hibs hitman Mickael Antoine-Curier to get forward quickly with support soon at hand.
It was Hibs, though, who might have taken an even earlier lead, Scott Robertson’s measured shot from 20 yards beating Cuthbert, but clipping the outside of the post, leaving the midfielder to sigh: “Kind of summed up my season.”
However, immediately after Cummings’ strike, Hibs had the sort of luck which they probably thought had deserted them entirely. Michael Nelson’s sliced clearance fell for Antoine-Curier, who found goalkeeper Ben Williams right on top of him to block his shot with his legs.
Cummings’ second goal left Accies with a mountain to climb although, like Butcher, Neil argued the tie wasn’t yet over, his side twice coming close to grabbing a goal which might have put a completely different complexion on the tie, Williams saving from Andy Ryan and then getting his body behind Tony Andreu’s powerful shot.
However, Butcher’s decision to pair Cummings with the experience of Paul Heffernan up front paid off handsomely, the veteran’s clever off-the-ball running giving his younger companion that extra yard he needed to get his shot away for the first goal, while it was his delivery which found the kid at the back post for his second.
The Hibs boss said: “Playing Jason was a gamble in many ways because he has not scored for the first team, but he has played very well and you are putting your faith in someone who has scored a hat-ful of goals for the 20s.
“All credit to him, he has a lot of confidence and a lot of talent as well. He’s not 19 until October, so he is a good prospect.”
If two goals weren’t enough, throw in a clean sheet for good measure, the first time Hibs have prevented the opposition from scoring in ten games, facts which, Butcher revealed, left him rather lost for words when it came to his half-time team talk.
He said: “It hasn’t normally revolved around a 1-0 lead. And then after the game and it’s 2-0 and you are thinking ‘Wow’, what do you say? There was a bit of disbelief, but it’s a lovely feeling, one we haven’t had for a long, long time.
“But it is also weird in many aspects because there is another game to go. The opposition manager will be saying it’s not over. I’m most definitely saying that and so are the players.”