HIBS boss Alex McLeish decided against risking Stuart Lovell after a month out due to a knee operation, but the return of John O’Neil following a two-match suspension gave the Easter Road outfit a more familiar look for their Scottish Cup semi-final clash against Livingston.
Lovell couldn’t even find a place on the bench where McLeish’s latest French signing, Frederic Arpinon, took a seat after starting both matches, against St Johnstone and Rangers, since his move from Troyes.
Fans from both sides were still taking their seats in the Hampden stands when O’Neil got Hibs off to a dream start with the opening goal after only 90 seconds.
And what a simple strike it was. Ulrik Laursen began it all with a short throw on the left, leaving Russell Latapy to roll the ball into the path of O’Neil, who took one touch before dispatching a low, right-foot shot from 18 yards. O’Neil didn’t appear to have struck the ball with too much power, but it was sufficient to find a spot just inside Ian McCaldon’s right-hand post with the goalkeeper looking a touch slow in going for it.
It was just the start Hibs wanted to steady the nerves against the First Division leaders.
Livingston had gone with an adventurous 4-3-3 system, a brave decision given the passing ability of Hibs’ midfield five, but their attacking threat nearly paid off, David Bingham forcing a second corner in quick succession only for Nick Colgan to show a safe pair of hands as he took Barry Wilson’s cross with Andrews powering in.
Hibs almost made it two in the 34th minute as Ian Murray got a touch on David Zitelli’s cross from the right, but the ball struck Marvin Andrews and fell behind Mixu Paatelainen, which gave the Trinidad and Tobago star time to boot clear. Although behind, Livingston were far from out of the game and Alex Burns brought his fans to their feet with a dazzling run which almost produced an equaliser in the 39th minute.
The former Raith Rovers star danced past Frank Sauzee and skipped away from Paul Fenwick as he wriggled into the Hibs penalty area, leaving himself with only Colgan to beat. But just as he prepared to pull the trigger, Mathias Jack appeared from nowhere to put in a goal-saving tackle, justifiably earning a pat on the back from his grateful goalkeeper.
Hibs almost made it two in the 64th minute as Paatelainen got his head to Laursen’s long throw, Murray getting in front of his marker to put a shot on target, McCaldon was down quickly to his right, however, to push the ball away for a fruitless corner.
The Hibs fans’ hearts were in their mouths as Steve Tosh’s run was ended by Jack, the big German’s clearance breaking off the arm of a team-mate only for referee Willie Young to wave away Livvy’s howls for a penalty.
Finally, those Hibee nerves were soothed in the 69th minute when Zitelli’s tenth goal of the season sent McLeish’s side through to their first Scottish Cup final in 22 years.
McCaldon, who had raced to the edge of his penalty area, and Andrews got into a tangle as they went for Gary Smith’s header. Zitelli, though, kept a cool head, his eye on the ball and, with his back half-turned towards the opposition’s goal, he managed to steer it over the line.
David Hagen replaced Mark McCulloch in the 76th minute but the former Rangers, Hearts and Falkirk star had barely time to glance around before O’Neil claimed his second of the match to put Hibs three up.
Laursen touched the ball down the left touchline to the midfielder, who stepped inside Philippe Brinquin before steadying himself to drill a low shot from 20 yards beyond the right hand of McCaldon.
Hibs faced Celtic in the final, but were sent home empty-handed as a Henrik Larsson double and a Jackie McNamara strike secured the trophy for Martin O’Neill’s side