The two Hibs Scottish Cup heroes locked in a promotion battle
Nothing lasts forever, so the old adage goes, and by the time the 2016/17 Scottish Premiership season began, five of the players who had helped Hibs to their first Scottish Cup victory in 114 years had left Easter Road.
Goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who had played a part in victories over Raith Rovers and Hearts and his fellow ‘keeper Conrad “Polar Bear” Logan - whose heroics in the semi-final had secured Hibs’ passage to the final - left for Southend and Rochdale respectively.
Anthony Stokes, man of the match in the final thanks to his double, along with Liam Henderson, who notched the assists for Stokes’ second goal and David Gray’s winner returned to Celtic and Niklas Gunnarsson to Valerenga, following the end of their loan spells.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and Gunnarsson and Henderson’s paths are about to cross once again, but in very different circumstances.
Henderson was a bit-part player under Brendan Rodgers on his return to Celtic, with the midfielder featuring just 13 times, mostly from the bench, during the 2016/17 campaign - although he played enough games to pick up a league medal.
The following season he played just 23 minutes of football as a substitute and by January 2018, he had joined Italian side Bari on trial and signed a permanent deal later that month.
At the end of the 2017/18 season, Bari were declared bankrupt and Henderson became a free agent. He signed for Serie B side Hellas Verona in August last year.
Gunnarsson left his native Norway and joined Swedish Allsvenskan side Djurgardens in August 2016, making 55 appearances over three seasons and scoring three goals. He also tasted cup glory for a second time, helping Djurgardens to a 3-0 win over Malmo in the Swedish Cup final in May 2018.
Earlier this month, he signed an 18-month deal with Palermo in Italy’s second tier.
A point separates Verona and Gunnarsson’s new club going into the business end of the season, but a quick glance at the second-tier table reveals a number of teams are in the mix.
Brescia sit top of Serie B, with 50 points from 27 matches. Palermo are in hot pursuit, with 49 points from 27 matches. Verona lie in third with 46 points from 28 games. Three teams win promotion to Serie A - the league-winners are automatically promoted, along with the runners-up. But the third-placed side faces a play-off battle unless it commands at least a ten-point margin over the team that finishes fourth - currently Lecce, with 45 points from 27 games. Pescara could also enter the equation, currently sitting on 45 points from 28 games while Benevento (43 points from 27 matches) can’t be ruled out either.
Verona play Brescia the week before, and before April is up must play Benevento and Pescara. Palermo, on the other hand, face trips to Pescara on April 3 and Benevento on April 14.
On April 8, the two teams face off at Palermo’s Stadio Renzo Barbera in what could be a crucial game in the promotion run-in. There’s also the very real possibility that both players could be playing Serie A football next season.