Even the most hardened cynic would have to admit that Manchester City’s recent Premier League title had a small whiff of romanticism about it. Putting Sheik Mansour’s hefty millions aside, the fact the club had not won it for 44 years, suffering more failed attempts at glory during that time than the combined careers of Andy Murray and Tim Henman, gave a small heartfelt sheen to their eventual victory. However, the sheer unbridled outpouring of emotion at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday will be made to look like a repressed Victorian soap opera if Hibs beat all the odds to defeat Hearts and lift the Scottish Cup at Hampden on Saturday.
To properly understand the gravity of this game to the people of Edinburgh, particularly those of a green persuasion; you have to go back in time. Way back to 1896 in fact, when Hibs last played Hearts in a Cup Final. Then forward slightly to the oft referred date of April 26th 1902. The date Hibs last won the cup. A full, frank and painful 110 long, long years ago. Hibs ‘Famous Five’ era of the Forties/Fifties, which remarkably won the league in 1948, 1951 and 1952 finished runners up in 1953 and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1956, still couldn’t win the Scottish Cup. Nor could the highly talented team of the Seventies known as ‘Turnbulls Tornadoes’ and featuring the likes of Pat Stanton and John Brownlie. To accentuate this, the club has reached the final on eight separate and agonising times, most recently in 2001 losing 3-0 against Celtic. We are talking about easily the biggest hoodoo in Scottish Football bar none. If the affable current Hibs manager Pat Fenlon and his team are going to shake this King-Kong sized monkey off the clubs back, they’re not only going to have to cope with the weight of history and 110 years of anticipation, they’re also going to have to do against their fiercest rivals.
Hearts have, by contrast, won it in four times during that period, most recently in 2006 when they beat Gretna in the final. They also boast arguably the stronger squad. In Rudi Skacel, Andy Driver and Ian Black they have players who can boss a game and make a genuine impact on the scoreline. Despite the near constant turmoil off the pitch this season, in which players have been paid late on numerous occasions and managers sacked seemingly on a whim, they finished a creditable 5th in the SPL. Run by the volatile and self-serving Vladamir Romanov they have been through 10 mangers since he took over in 2004 and countless incidents, producing scandalous headlines and often unfair speculation on their future. Despite this, over recent years they have consistently made a bid for the somewhat patronising title of ‘Scotland’s Third Best Team’. For them, Saturday is an opportunity to definitively put Hibs in their place. The opportunity to not only beat their city rivals in the Scottish Cup Final for the first time since 1896 but to also extend the Easter Road sides embarrassing Scottish Cup drought must rate so highly on the desirability scale it is almost unbearable.
Hibs have what can only be described as a ‘punchers chance’ of winning it. They’re a side which has diced perilously with relegation all season. A team which are, quite frankly, hopeless in defence and unspectacular in midfield. They also suffer a near bi-polar shift in confidence, swinging from an assured looking mid-table SPL team to a hapless pub team, often over the period of 45 minutes. However, they do have goals in them. Up front they possess the one time Birmingham City and Locomotiv Moscow striker Gary O’Connor and Ivan Sproule, who spent last season netting goals for Bristol City. It is this strike force that offers Hibs their best chance of edging this monumental encounter. Should this pair get the opportunity, they will give Hearts a bloody nose. A point which will not be lost on Hearts manger Paulo Sergio who will look to counter this by tying up the midfield area of the park.
With such pressure on both sides it is unlikely to be a classic game. However, it will be a fascinating encounter. Meagre allocations of 22,000 tickets per club has seen a predictable frenzy for Cup Final briefs and calls from both sets of fans to move the game from the national stadium in Glasgow to Murrayfield in Edinburgh. True to form, The SFA have refused to humour any suggestion of this leaving the headache of transporting thousands of rival fans from Edinburgh to Glasgow and back. All police leave has been cancelled, pub opening hours restricted as Edinburgh residents put down the shutters in anticipation of the biggest derby game in the citys recent history. Never before has so much been at stake for the two Edinburgh teams. One thing is for sure, it is a game that captures the importance of the Scottish Cup better than any other possibly could. For both teams a win will be colossal but for Hibs in particular it would be not only overwhelmingly enormous and historically significant but ultimately a victory for the sheer romance of the Scottish Cup.
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