Liam Fontaine will arrive at Hampden on Sunday fuelled by a burning desire to add a blast of stardust to his CV.
The 30-year-old defender has accumulated more than 300 appearances in a career spent predominantly with Bristol City and Hibs. However, for all the enjoyment the game has given him over the last decade and a bit, the Londoner frets over the possibility of hanging up his boots without any meaningful silverware to his name.
Fontaine got his hands on medals when City finished runners-up in the 2007 League One title race and again when they lost the 2008 Championship play-off final to Hull City. He also received a gong for playing a small part in Yeovil Town’s League Two title win during his first of three loan spells there in 2004.
However, the thrill of having a bona fide winner’s medal wrapped around his neck has eluded the Hibs centre-back so far. He views Sunday’s League Cup final showdown with Ross County – the first cup final of his career – as a golden opportunity to change all that and ensure he doesn’t go down as a “nearly man”.
“This is one of the biggest games I’ll ever have played in,” he told the Evening News. “Down south, I was mostly playing in the Championship, so it’s hard to get to finals because there are so many Premier League teams to get past. The biggest game I played in down south was the Championship play-off final against Hull at Wembley so, without a doubt, it’ll be the biggest achievement in my career if we can win the cup on Sunday.
“We got promoted to the Championship by finishing second in League One at Bristol City and I got a medal for that but I’ve never won a league title. I got a league winner’s medal from a loan spell at Yeovil because I had played enough games to qualify, but I wasn’t there for the whole season and I wouldn’t class myself as a league winner because of that. This would be my first proper medal if we can do it.
“It’s a chance for this group of players to make history – it would be a great feeling to be part of that. I want to be able to look back on it when I finish playing and say ‘I was part of that’. When you look back on your career, you want to be able to tell people about what you’ve done in the game. You don’t want to be saying ‘I played x amount of years as a footballer’ and then when people ask you what you’ve won, you have to say ‘eh, not much’. If we can win this cup, it’s a great thing to be able to say you’ve done and add to your list of achievements.”
Sunday’s final has captured the imagination of those closest to Fontaine. “I’ve got a few friends and family members coming up for the game,” he said. “It’s an occasion everyone wants to be part of – everyone around you wants to see you doing well in a cup final. I can’t wait for Sunday.”
Fontaine is currently with his colleagues at their pre-cup final training base on the Costa del Sol. The Hibs team flew into Malaga yesterday and will remain at the idyllic La Cala Resort, here in the Andalusian hills, until Thursday. Head coach Alan Stubbs felt a few days in the sunshine would help rejuvenate his players after a hectic run of fixtures across three competitions over the last couple of months, and Fontaine was of no mind to disagree.
“It’s good to get away for a few days and get a change of scenery,” said the defender. “Mentally it’s great for us all to get away because lately it’s just been game, game, game. It’s quite rare for us to have a full week to build up before a game so it’s a good chance to have a different approach for a big game.
“Everybody views it differently, but personally I think it’s a good thing to get away and prepare for a big game if you can. It’s a good chance to switch off from any outside influences that could potentially hinder you. We have a really good tight-knit group – not just the players, the staff as well – so it’s great for us all to go away together. I think it will work well for us. The trips we’ve had in the past have been good for squad harmony. They’re always funny trips and they bring everyone together. When we get back to Scotland, we’ll be raring to go for Sunday.”
Underlining the camaraderie in the squad, Paul Hanlon and Dylan McGeouch, who are both set to miss the final through injury, were among the group that flew to Spain yesterday. Fontaine admits it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for colleagues who could miss out on one of the biggest matches of their lives.
“The injuries to Paul and Dylan, if he doesn’t make it, will take the shine off it,” he said. “They’re great players for us and Paul’s obviously a Hibs boy which makes it even worse. It’s just unfortunate that the injuries have come at such a bad time. This team are always in it together, though, so they’ll be kicking every ball with us and if we win it, they’ll be there celebrating with us as well.”
Hibs’ mindset ahead of Sunday’s final has been boosted by a morale-boosting performance in the 1-1 draw with Inverness. The Easter Road side, who had lost their previous three league games, were within 13 minutes of defeating the Premiership side before Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo’s equaliser set up a replay in the Highlands a week tomorrow.
“I thought we played well against Inverness,” said Fontaine. “It was a good performance from us but they chucked players on and went for it towards the end and got their reward, so we have to go again. The replay adds to our fixture list but we’ve had to deal with games coming thick and fast all season. It’s not ideal having the replay just a few days after the cup final but we’ll just put it in the schedule and deal with it. We’re just happy just to be in so many different competitions.
“More has been made of the three-game losing run than what it was. In the three games, we played well enough but just didn’t score at the right times and we got punished for it. We’re over it now and we move on to the final next week.”