Scottish Cup: ‘Hibs are real deal’ - Stevenson

Lewis Stevenson is fouled by Rudi Skacel during last year's final. Picture: SNS
Lewis Stevenson is fouled by Rudi Skacel during last year's final. Picture: SNS
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Twelve months on and the hurt is still raw, barely a day having passed without Lewis Stevenson and his team-mates being reminded of the humiliation inflicted on them by arch-rivals Hearts.

Everywhere they have gone, the 5-1 scoreline has been flashed in their direction, every derby match has reverberated to Jambo fans claiming “We only won 5-1” and, as if anyone in green and white had forgotten, that Hibs haven’t got their hands on the Scottish Cup since 1902.

But as he looked forward to tomorrow’s return to Hampden and yet another bid to land that trophy, Stevenson insisted the Hibs side of today bears no comparison to that of 2012, adamant that Pat Fenlon’s players are better prepared to take on the SPL champions than they were their Capital rivals.

Last year’s final was, he declared, simply a game too far for an Easter Road side which had spent much of the season battling against relegation, their top-flight status only secured in the penultimate SPL game, a campaign which had left them exhausted both mentally and physically.

On the day, he believes, the occasion and all the hype which had surrounded the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in 116 years simply became too much for them.

Today, though, Stevenson feels the new-look Hibs team which Fenlon has fashioned in the intervening months is better equipped in so many ways. He said: “Last year was a strange one. We’d had a long, hard season. For us, every game was like a Cup final as we were fighting to stay in the league and yet we still found ourselves in the real thing.

“By the time it came around we’d used up a lot of energy. It had taken its toll on us. In a way it was a game too far, although, obviously, we were delighted to be there.

“I can only speak for myself, but I felt as if we ended up talking as if we were going into a battle rather than on to a football pitch. There was all the build-up to the game, the fact it was an all-Edinburgh final and so on. We hadn’t had the best of seasons, but despite all that we felt we had a good chance. But on the day, we just didn’t perform.”

Today, though, Stevenson – while acknowledging he and his team-mates will be regarded as underdogs – believes Hibs can approach Hampden with a degree of cautious optimism, Fenlon’s players having embarked on a run of six matches unbeaten, sparked by that stunning second-half comeback to beat Falkirk in the semi-final and culminating in three straight wins against Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee.

The little midfielder said: “It’s a great achievement for us to be in the final for a second year in succession. To be honest, I didn’t think we’d be back at Hampden so quickly. Last year was our first Scottish Cup final since 2001 and the one prior to that was in 1979, so it shows just how well we have done.

“There won’t be many clubs outwith Celtic and Rangers who have done that and I think we can go into tomorrow’s match more relaxed and hopefully the football will take care of itself. We were a bit disappointed we didn’t make the top six after enjoying a very good first half of the season, but we were never in any danger unlike last season and actually finished things off with a good run which has built up momentum and confidence.”

The reasons behind Hibs’ meek capitulation a year ago have, of course, been hotly debated among the green-and-white army, many of whom cite the fact that the side was packed with players signed on loan – a necessity, Fenlon reckoned, if he were to pull off the rescue act for which he had been recruited following the sacking of Colin Calderwood.

But while three key figures in today’s team still fall into that category – top scorer Leigh Griffiths, Honduran internationalist Jorge Claros and Manchester City defender Ryan McGivern – Stevenson argues circumstances are, again, entirely different.

He said: “I don’t think anyone really regards them as loanees any more. Leigh has been at the club for almost two seasons now, Jorge’s been with us for 18 months and Ryan has been here all season. They’ve racked up a lot of games between them and been part of a settled side, whereas the second half of last season saw a lot of chopping and changing.

“Having said that, though, I don’t think it matters if a player is at a club on loan and you get to a game like the cup final. It’s a massive match regardless of your own personal circumstances. Everyone wants to be involved in such an occasion as it’s the biggest game in which most players will play.”

Having taken his players away to Dublin to escape the frenzy which was building in Edinburgh last year, Fenlon has adopted a more low-profile approach to tomorrow’s final, basing his players at their East Mains training centre. Stevenson said: “It’s just been like any other week. I don’t think there was any reason to go away, whereas last year we just wanted to get away from the city for a bit of peace and quiet.”

Stevenson knows the ecstasy of winning at Hampden as well as the agony of losing, being the youngest member of John Collins’ side which romped to a 5-1 win over Kilmarnock in 2007 to lift the CIS Insurance Cup. Astonishingly, the 25-year-old is now Hibs’ longest-serving player and as such will be urging the youngsters who have emerged in recent weeks – Alex Harris, Danny Handling, Ross Caldwell and Jordon Forster – to heighten the competition for the 16 places available tomorrow to make the most of the day if chosen.

He said: “To be honest, I probably didn’t fully appreciate it at the time because I was so young. But then you hear someone like Alan Maybury, with all the clubs he has played for – Leeds, Hearts, Leicester, Aberdeen and so on – tell you this is his first cup final.

“I’ll be telling any of the youngsters who is involved to enjoy themselves, to let the football take care of itself, to focus on the game and not the occasion.”

Tomorrow will bring Stevenson face-to-face with Celtic skipper Scott Brown, a team-mate on that memorable day in 2007 and admitted he’d love to have him on his side again. He said: “Scott is a fantastic player, [a] top-quality one you’d rather have at your side than up against you. But Celtic have a lot of great players and we’ll have to be on our toes all over the pitch.

“Celtic are favourites for a reason, but we know that if we play to our best then we have a chance of winning. We’ve already done that against them this season.”