The onset of Scottish Cup final week is supposed to be met with widespread optimism for any participating team. For Hibs, however, the build-up to this Saturday’s Hampden showdown with Rangers has been significantly clouded by the hangover from Friday night’s play-off heartbreak at Falkirk Stadium.
The post-mortem into a second successive failure to win promotion from the Championship is ongoing and, amid all the negativity which has revisited the club, Alan Stubbs must somehow rouse his shattered team over the next five days for their final chance at some form of redemption.
“It will take a few days to get it out of our system,” said midfielder Marvin Bartley. “What we’ve been feeling over the weekend can’t be turned round in a few days. It’s so hard to take, so there might be a hangover when we go back to training, but we’ve got to get focused on the cup final because it’s become an even bigger game after what happened in the play-offs.
“Our season now hinges on what we do on Saturday. Victory is the only option. I don’t want to feel the same way on Saturday as I do now or as I felt after the League Cup final, but there are only so many times you can say that. I said that after the League Cup final. We shouldn’t have lost in the play-offs, it’s that simple.”
Bartley is still struggling to come to terms with the fact Hibs don’t have a play-off final against Kilmarnock to look forward to this week. He knows they looked in control of the second leg when leading 2-1 and 4-3 on aggregate, but insists they only have themselves to blame for not being clinical enough to add to their lead and for switching off defensively as Falkirk roared back to secure a 5-4 aggregate victory courtesy of a last-gasp Bob McHugh winner.
“We looked comfortable at 2-1 up, but we missed chances and if you miss chances like we do, it puts too much pressure on the defensive side of the team. Yeah, we could have defended better, but we’ve got to put the ball in the back of the net. We were clinical in the first half but in the second half it seemed to go to pot – it was the same old story.
“Their second goal was a great strike from the boy [Luke Leahy] but the third goal, we’ve got to do better. People can’t be having free shots from there. These breaks always seem to fall for the other team. It’s got to be one of us getting there first, simple as that.”
For the second time in the space of two months, Hibs’ players are having to deal with the repercussions of a last-gasp, dream-ending hammer blow. In similar fashion to the League Cup final in March, when Alex Schalk scored Ross County’s winner in the last minute, Falkirk struck with the last kick of Friday’s match, at a time when Hibs thought they had done enough to at least take the tie into extra-time.
“It was a real kick in the teeth and it’s very hard to take because it all happened so suddenly,” said Bartley. “We were disappointed they scored to make it 2-2 but you start to think you’ve at least got extra-time to get back in front. Maybe that’s what happened – maybe we switched off too early.”
Hibs now face the prospect of losing several key men this summer. Anthony Stokes and Liam Henderson are both scheduled to return to parent club Celtic, while Paul Hanlon is out of contract. Jason Cummings and John McGinn, who are under contract, are likely to attract interest. Stubbs’ future also remains unclear, meaning even those, such as Bartley, who remain under contract have little idea how things will unfold over the summer.
“I have no idea if we’ll be able to keep the team together for next season,” he said. “That’s down to the club. A lot of people are contracted for next season, myself being one of them. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here this season, being at such a big club in Scotland. We’re in the Championship next season and I’m contracted for next season, so I’m more than willing to stay and try and drive the club up, just as I was this season. It’s down to the club what happens, but from my point of view, I’m a Hibs player.”