McGregor: This could be best season ever for Hibs
Leith through and through, Darren McGregor knows better than many just what winning the Scottish Cup would mean to Hibs and their supporters, not only in the Capital or even Scotland, but worldwide.
The Easter Road club’s tortuous history with the trophy has been well documented, not since Bobby Atherton lifted it 114 years ago has any Hibs captain led his team-mates up the steps at Hampden to gather that particular piece of silverware. No-one alive has been around long enough to remember the occasion, not even the Edinburgh club’s oldest supporter Sam Martinez, at 106 missing out by just a few years.
And, in his 30 years, McGregor has had his dream dashed more than once although the closest he has ever come has been with a green-and-white scarf draped around his neck.
Today, though, he knows that in a few weeks he’ll be able to do something about it, Hibs back in their third final in five years, chapping at the door again and hoping – as so many have down through the years – that their time has finally come.
Cautioning that there’s still a lot of water to flow under the bridge before that match against Rangers on May 21, the focus after Saturday’s dramatic penalty shoot-out semi-final win over Dundee United now back solely on promotion, McGregor allowed himself a few minutes to indulge in a “what if” scenario.
“I totally understand it being around it 24/7,” he admitted, “I know how the fans feel but the way I look at it, potentially winning the Scottish Cup and going up would make it one of the best seasons Hibs have ever had.”
McGregor agreed that with just one win in their last seven league games, many might raise eyebrows at such talk. “There’s a point there, but I look forward and ask ‘what can we now do?’
“Winning the Scottish Cup would be one of our greatest achievements. There’s no-one living who has actually seen it happen. I’m conscious of that but the final will take care of itself. Between now and then we have a lot of games to play as we look to get ourselves promoted.”
Just as it looked as if Hibs’ season was crashing down about their ears, the players came up with the answers for those yet again questioning their “bottle”, displaying that resilience which has become their trademark as they once again overcame Premiership opposition.
Dundee United had been swept aside in the League Cup, going down 3-0 in what manager Mixu Paatelainen described as a “black night” for the Tannadice outfit, but this encounter, as predicted, proved much tougher, 120 minutes not enough to separate the sides. There was a glaring penalty miss by top scorer Jason Cummings, the youngster attempting an audacious Panenka chip that flew over goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s bar at a time when Hibs were dominating the match against opposition living on their nerves as they hurtle towards relegation.
It was a big moment in the game admitted Coll Donaldson, the United defender guilty of using an arm to block Fraser Fyvie’s cross to prompt referee John Beaton to make the award. The former Livingston player said: “We said the first goal would be massive. It was a huge opportunity but that miss gave us a foothold in the game and I thought after that we were by far the better team.”
United certainly seemed to grow in confidence but Conrad Logan, the goalkeeper signed by Stubbs barely a fortnight earlier, vindicating the head coach’s decision to give him the nod ahead of Finnish Under-21 internationalist Otso Virtanen.
It was Logan’s first match in 16 months after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon and, if the 29-year-old clearly looked more than a bit out of shape, he proved more than a match for anything United could throw at him.
Having pulled off a great save when Billy Mckay sneaked in behind Paul Hanlon, the Irishman did so again on the stroke of half-time. And deep into injury time he came out on top in a third one-on-one contest, this time thwarting Henri Anier, the United striker who had spent the first half of the season on loan with Hibs.
But those heroics paled somewhat as it came down to penalties, Hibs no doubt aware that United had put them out of the League Cup last season by such means. United’s hopes of doing so again were almost instantly dashed, Logan throwing himself to his left to push away the first attempt from Blair Spittal and then to his right to do likewise to Mckay’s shot.
United scored their next two, but Hibs were deadly from the spot, John McGinn, Paul Hanlon, Martin Boyle and, inevitably, that man Cummings steering them through.
Stubbs admitted he wanted to throttle Cummings for his early miss but while the 20-year-old had been the subject of some harsh words from his team-mates, McGregor only had admiration for the Scotland Under-21 striker’s courage in volunteering to take another spot-kick.
He said: “Jason’s hand was up straight away which speaks volumes for his character. He doesn’t shy away.
“Me? I was 14th in line, I was hiding behind the subs. The last penalty I took was for Leith Athletic’s Under-14s and I put it over the bar.
“Obviously when Jason missed earlier in the game you have a go at him but sometimes it is better to be positive, telling him to keep going, to keep getting on the ball. He did and he got his reward.“To step up and take a penalty at the age of 20 having already missed one shows his character.”
Logan certainly did, McGregor revealing no-one knew who would be in goal until Stubbs announced his team half-an-hour before they went out to warm-up.
McGregor, who himself has battled back from two cruciate ligament injuries, said: “I can relate to what he has been through but hopefully that performance can be a new start for him.
“We defended well but Conrad had a couple of point-blank saves and then those two in the penalty shoot-out. I was delighted for him. He’s a lively big guy with a bubbly personality and that performance will only help him.
“We’d seen him in training, knew what he was all about and the calibre of goalkeeper he is. He’d been at Leicester for a number of years so we didn’t think being pitched into a Scottish Cup semi-final would faze him. He knew what to expect and he proved how much of an asset he can be.”