Niklas Gunnarsson wants to make his last Hibs game count
Niklas Gunnarsson knows tomorrow's Scottish Cup final is likely to be his last for Hibs but the Norwegian defender is determined to leave on a high having been pestered for months by fans telling him just how much winning the trophy means to them.
Gunnarsson is poised to return to his homeland club Valerenga as his short-term loan deal in Edinburgh draws to a close with what he admits will be the biggest game of his career.
And just how big it could be has been hammered home to him as he’s gone about his daily business in the Capital.
“When I am out shopping, having a coffee or getting the groceries, people have stopped me to tell me how important it is,” revealed the 25-year-old.
“It is all in good fun, but you can see how much it means to the supporters especially when you consider that the club has not won this final in 114 years. It’s a massive game and hopefully we can give the supporters what they deserve.”
Gunnarsson admitted those self-same fans weren’t too happy a week ago as Falkirk ended Hibs’ hopes of winning promotion to the Premiership but he insisted that he and his team-mates have to push that disappointment out of their minds.
He said: “We can’t do too much about that now, we need to move on. I have been told winning the Scottish Cup is more important than winning promotion. If we win this game then I think people will feel we have enjoyed a good season. We have come close in every competition so I don’t think it has been a failure.
“We wanted to get promotion and we wanted to win the League Cup but, in football, good teams get into big games and sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. We haven’t done the thing we wanted to do, but that’s football and we need to focus on what is ahead of us.”
While one half of Edinburgh will be wishing head coach Alan Stubbs and his players all the luck in the world as they head for Hampden, Gunnarsson doesn’t believe in bad luck.
“It is more about how nervous you are before a game,” he said, “But, if you play well, then you always have a chance to win. We had a mental coach at my former club and we did positive thinking before a game. Some people believed in it, some didn’t. I have done it sometimes but I don’t think it affected my game.
“Normally 30 minutes before every game I feel some tension. That is just something that triggers me because I know I am going to play.”
Gunnarsson insisted the mood around Hibs’ East Mains training centre has been upbeat this week as he and his team-mates have focused on tomorrow, revealing Stubbs had played a key part in lifting spirits.
He said: “It’s mostly the gaffer and the coaches who get people focused and motivated. Some players listen to music before a game, some do stretches. It is about what you want to do, what is best for yourself. It is always different. It is not one of the players who comes and talks – that’s the gaffer’s part.
“He has played in big games and he knows what we went through last Friday. He doesn’t speak too much about that and he wants us to focus, have fun and enjoy the last week. When the big games come up we need to take the chance.”
While Stubbs may provide that day-to-day shoulder for his players, Gunnarsson also has his father Ronny, himself a former football coach in Norway, Sweden and the Faroe Islands and a well-known journalist, who will be coming to Scotland for the final along with Niklas’s best friend.
He said: “My father has meant a lot to me in my football career. He has always supported me and been a part of my game since I was young. He has been involved in professional football for 30 years and I’ve learned a lot of things from him. But he has always allowed me to do the things I wanted to do. When I was younger I did karate instead of football and he said ‘that’s just fine’. He wanted me to live my own life and he never pushed me in any direction. I was good at karate, I was taking the black belt but there came a point when I had to choose so when I was 13 I went to play football instead.
“I was too young to compete in competitions at karate so I decided to pursue football and when I became a professional player my father taught me many things and how I should behave.”
Gunnarsson will go into tomorrow’s match with happy memories of the last time he faced Rangers. Having scored his first goal for Hibs, it proved to be the winner in a five-goal thriller against the Ibrox club. He recalled: “For myself and the team it was a good day and to win 3-2 was nice.
“To score my first Hibs goal was also good, it’s always nice to score the winner. But I don’t care if I score goals or have assists, as long as the team wins I am happy. Tomorrow will be my last game for Hibs. I have to respect the period of the contract so it will be a special moment and hopefully it will be a great moment.”
• Niklas Gunnarsson was talking as he supported the Tesco Bank Football Challenge in which 320 pupils from local primary schools enjoyed a fun-filled day at Easter Road, the youngsters being the latest to have taken part in six weeks of coaching sessions as part of the SFA’s flagship participation programme.