Alan Stubbs has admitted leading Hibs out at Hampden on Sunday will be a moment in his career which will only be surpassed by watching his side lift the League Cup.
But while the Easter Road club take on Ross County having already disposed of three other Premiership clubs – Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Johnstone – the Hibs boss believes the greater danger lies in his young players being able to handle the occasion.
Stubbs, who twice won the trophy with Celtic and a beaten finalist in the English League Cup as Bolton Wanderers lost to Liverpool, said: “When we drew Aberdeen, who were flying at the top of the Premiership and unbeaten as a challenge, we looked at it as a challenge, to use it as a marker to where we were, to see whether we could compete against a team at a higher level.
“Individually and collectively we have come through these challenges. But now the ultimate challenge is dealing with the occasion. It’s not necessarily the best team that wins a cup final. To win more often than not you need everything to fall into place, to perform on the day and maybe get a little break here and there.
“Bus most of all you have to control your emotions. I have seen players drained before they have even kicked a ball in a cup final because emotionally it can do that to you. You can burn up a lot of nervous energy and before you know it you are on the pitch, you hear the roar of the crowd, the excitement and you are drained.”
Many of Stubbs players, of course, already have experience of a Hampden appearance, narrowly beaten by Falkirk in the semi-final of last season’s Scottish Cup despite being the better team on the day, but while admitting that will help, he insisted playing a final itself is a different proposition although he believes his young players will handle the day,
He said: “I think in a semi there’s the excitement of getting to a major final, but playing in a final at Hampden for me is a different level again. Sometimes you think of the young team we have, the young players and wonder what they are going to be like on that stage.
“But I don’t think anything fazes them. I look at them and they give me the impression that the bigger the occasion they bigger they respond. They seem to thrive on big game fever and for them that’s a real feather in their caps going forward.”
Given the opposition Hibs have already faced, many might say even reaching the final is an achievement in itself, Stubbs saying: “It will certainly be one of the highlights of my career in full, never mind playing-wise or whatever, to walk the team out at Hampden.
“There is a real sense of pride within the club, but it will be even more pleasing if, after 90 minutes or 120 minutes if we get the result we all want.”
Hibs have obviously reached Hampden the hard way even if they met those three Premiership sides on their own turf, leading Stubbs, who has twice beaten cancer, to say: “I don’t think it’s in my DNA to have an easy life. Everything seems to be the hard way.
“Things fall around you but you have to find a way to get through, round or over it. Life is an obstacle, but it’s how you deal with that obstacle, to find what’s the best way to deal with overcoming it.
“And that’s what we will do.”
The scenes which greeted a triumphant Hibs side when they lifted the then CIS Insurance Cup nine years ago trouncing Kilmarnock 5-1, more than 30,000 fans singing the club’s unofficial anthem Sunshine on Leith, have passed into footballing folklore, Stubbs and his players getting a taste of what’s to come if they manage to beat Ross County after they knocked Hearts out of the Scottish Cup only a few weeks ago.
But, while he admits to have watched clips from 2007, Stubbs insisted he’s not given arriving back at Easter Road in style on an open top bus – something denied him as a winner with Cetic – much thought.
He said: “I think any player, any manager, any fan looking at those clips will want to see that again. I don’t think there would be anything as pleasing as being part of a group, especially as manager of that group, to get to any cup final and get a result. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“But, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t looked too far ahead. I’m obviously looking forward to it but it’s been firmly at the back of my mind as ahead of this game I’ve been concentrating on the short-term and the other games we’ve had to play. Because we have done well, every game has been a big game for us in recent weeks.”
Although Ross County are fourth in the Premiership and Hibs third in the Championship, Falkirk having taken advantage of the Easter Road club being on Scottish Cup business last weekend to grab a two-point advantage, most bookies can split the side, although one or two have the Edinburgh club as very slight favourites.
And Stubbs agrees it’s a match both teams will believe they can win, while not under-estimating the threat posed by Jim McIntyre’s men.
He said: “Ross County have done well since Jim, Billy [assistant manager Dodds] and his staff have gone in there. They’ve done a fantastic job.
“There are similarities to what we have done here at Hibs, building a group of players. Since day one when Jim went in, to whatever it is now, I am sure you will have seen a huge transformation in personnel while he’s changed the whole psyche of the club, fitness levels, sports science and so on.
“I know Jim well. We did our Pro Licence together. We get on well and it doesn’t surprise me the job he has done. They are fourth in the Premiership. You only have to look at that to see how well he’s done.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge, a very difficult game. But I don’t think there’s a lot in it. Both teams will go in believing they can win it.
“We may be in the second tier of Scottish football right now and obviously the aim this season is to win promotion, but it would be just as satisfying winning the League Cup if we were in the first, second or third tier.”