Jason Cummings had to be lead from the pitch at Easter Road, a comforting arm thrown around his shoulder as tears streamed down his face after the teenager had missed the penalty which condemned Hibs to relegation.
Only a few days earlier the youngster had been the Hibees’ hero, netting the two goals at New Douglas Park which appeared to secure the Edinburgh club’s place in the Premiership. But his joy turned to agony as Hamilton clawed back that lead, with a last-minute equaliser sending the second leg of the play-off final into extra-time.
A further 30 minutes couldn’t separate the sides, forcing a penalty shoot-out. Hibs midfielder Kevin Thomson missed the first and Hamilton held a 4-3 lead as Cummings stepped up, needing to score to keep the shoot-out alive.
His tame effort was saved, the trapdoor opened and Hibs were sent hurtling down into the Championship.
But, as distressing as that moment might have been, Cummings today insisted that if such a situation should arise during this season’s play-offs, he’ll be the first to volunteer, determined to obliterate the memory of what remains the worst moment in his career.
As he collected the SPFL Player of the Month Award, Cummings said: “It took me a while to get over that. I was devastated for days and couldn’t face going out with my mates for weeks. I wasn’t myself at all. I’m normally quite outgoing, but I was just gutted and slumping around. I was up all night. I couldn’t sleep. I was kicking myself.”
Cummings confessed to having watched the moment of horror since that day, while revealing Hamilton and Hearts fans like to “give it a wee mention” on Twitter. But, he insisted, such an experience has made him stronger, saying: “When I watch it back it just drives me on to do better next time.
“It doesn’t bother me now, I managed to get over it. It’s old news.”
And Cummings absolved then-manager Terry Butcher, sacked and replaced by Alan Stubbs, of any blame for him being the last of the five chosen for the shoot-out. “I said to the gaffer at the time: ‘I deffo want to take a pen’,” Cummings revealed. “He asked me if I was sure and I told him I 100 per cent wanted to take one. I’d rather take the penalty, stand up and be counted, rather than bottle it. I was happy he let me take it. I think he was thinking if he put me on the last kick, then maybe I wouldn’t need to take one.
“It didn’t go to plan, but I’m still glad he let me take it. It’s made me a stronger player. I’d definitely put my hand up again. I want to take penalties now, but Liam [Craig] and Dylan [McGeouch] have been on them. Dylan missed the last one so I think I might be on them now. Any chance I can get to score I’ll take with both hands.”
So far Cummings has scored 19 times this season and, unsurprisingly for the 19-year-old who certainly doesn’t lack confidence, he admitted he’d love to score the goals that take Hibs back up. He said: “It would mean everything to me.
“Last season started well for me and then ended with the worst thing that has ever happened in my career. Now it’s 19 for the season and I’m still counting. Hopefully I can add more. I want to get over 20 and hopefully I’ll get there on the last day of the season.”
Cummings has that chance tomorrow against Falkirk who, he conceded, have proved to be Hibs’ bogey side, not only beating them twice in the Championship but knocking them out of the Scottish Cup. The game also gives Stubbs’ players the opportunity to clinch the victory which would ensure second place in the table and with it the prospect of two fewer play-off games.
Cummings, though, admitted he was a little surprised he and his team-mates find themselves in that situation, rivals Rangers having dropped two precious points against Falkirk as Hibs were crushing Alloa Athletic 4-1.
He said: “When I was playing I heard the Hibs fans singing ‘let’s all laugh at Rangers’, so I figured they must be getting beaten. When I came off the physio told me they were 2-0 down. They managed to get a draw, but it is still in our own hands.
“To be honest, if they were going to drop points, I thought it would have been against Hearts. It’s a definite bonus for us and it’s given everyone a real lift. All we need to do is win one more game.”
And that it is against Falkirk doesn’t worry Cummings in the slightest. He said: “They have kind of been our bogey team this season, but I think we are due to beat them quite comfortably.
“Hampden was disappointing because I feel we deserved more from it. But at the end of the day they got the result. It’s not really about revenge, we just want to play them again and beat them.
“Finishing second is massive. We knew from the start with Hearts running away a wee bit that second was a must. It means a couple of weeks extra to rest up and that would be huge.”
Currently the top scorer in the Championship, Cummings, who was working as a gardener less than two years ago, admits his own career has progressed dramatically under Stubbs and the coaching staff he brought in last summer. He said: “Everything we do, the warm-ups, the cool-downs, the foot we eat, it is so much more professional.
“The gaffer and the coaching staff have helped me massively, they’ve believed in me.”
And Cummings believes he’s taking a more professional attitude to life outside football. He said: “There are a lot more distractions off the pitch with your mates going up town and doing this or that, but I’ve been keeping myself out of trouble – or trying to keep myself out of trouble. It’s been better this season.”