It can’t be a coincidence that one of the verses in Frank Sinatras famous song started with “When I was 35…..” – But then I suppose that only really works for me a a small percentage of other Hibs fans. Some people may debate whether 2016 was a “very good” one for Hibernian, but in the grand scheme of Scottish football it has to be seen as one.
The year started with a double header against Raith Rovers. The first game, in the league at Easter Road, was pretty drab. A week later we ventured up to Kirkcaldy ready to start yet another Scottish cup campaign. The papers were talking about 114 years and the fact we were still in the Championship, while Hibs fans clung on to the fact that Raith had been knocked out of the Scottish Cup in the previous 2 seasons by the eventual winners. We were gonna make it a hat trick! We could but dream!
The end of January brought the end of the transfer window. It had been an interesting one. We’d seen the departure of Cult hero Dominic Malonga, and the arrival of Chris Dagnall and returning hero Anthony Stokes. Its debatable whether this was a strong transfer window for us. The numerous cup games meant we were maybe too stretched in the league, and our form definitely suffered.
Cup games were coming thick and fast, and we found ourselves with 2 visits to Tynecastle. Firstly a league Cup semi final against St Johnstone. Here we showed yet again that we were good enough to mix it with most Premiership teams, and we ended that day dreaming of lifting the league cup.
Just a week later we were back at Tynecastle. I had been fortunate enough to be at Murrayfield the day before for Scotland v England in the 6 nations, and had spent a lot of the evening in the Murrayfield Hotel. Just a few hours later, I was back in there with a rugby-themed 2 pint plastic pint glass. Standing outside the hotel a roar went up as the Hibs team bus went past, and right at the front was John Doolan, beating the badge on his chest and roaring to the approving Hibees. His passion was plain to see, and it clearly was shared by the team that day. Now I am unfortunately fairly used to coming away from Tynecastle rather disappointed, and at half time the feeling was, it was gonna be another one of those days. Except, I really did wonder how we found ourselves 2 goals down. We’d been the better side, and as usual Hearts had scored 2 very good goals rather than scrappy penalty box efforts. Fair play to the fans, they kept on getting behind the players, and as the second half went on, it really did feel like a goal for us would really swing things in our favour. When Jason clipped the ball with his head, everything seemed to go in slow motion. The ball seemed to be in the air for ever, and it did look as if it was never going to come back down. When it did drop in the top corner, I think Cummings was as surprised as the rest of us. Boom, the Roseburn stand erupted. There was a feeling of relief, but mostly because we knew we were back in this game. We kept pressing and when lifelong Hibee Paul Hanlon hooked the ball into the Hearts net in the last minute, the away end was absolute carnage. From my seat in the back row, I somehow found myself at the bottom of the stand. My journey back to my seat took a good wee while as I hugged and hi fived every hibs fan I went past. As we left the stadium that day, I don’t think we were really thinking about winning the Scottish cup, just the fact that we’d come back from 2 goals down, and had a derby at Easter Road to now look forward to.
We made hard work of the replay. A very early goal left plenty time for nailbiting and goal mouth stramashes. The final whistle definitely meant relief, but also a superb rendition of Sunshine on Leith. I think that was the moment a lot of our newer players realised what it meant to be a Hibee. On we marched to the Quarter finals. We knew we’d now be playing the current holders, Inverness, but it was at Easter Road, so anything could happen, right?
As the Quarter final of the Scottish cup and the final of the league cup approached, our league form really suffered. 3 losses in a row to Morton, Dumbarton and Queen of the South was far from ideal preparation for 2 big cup games. But against all odds, we pulled out another decent performance against a Premiership team. A strong first half saw us take a 1-0 lead when as usual it could have been 3 or 4. This allowed Inverness to hang in and improve as the game went on, to the point that they probably deserved their equaliser when it came.
The following week, off we went to Hampden. A final against Ross County was the kind of game we all hoped for. In Hindsight I think too many fans went in to that game expecting to win. My 11 year old son was certainly one of them. Yet again we played well, and didn’t take our chances. Our downfall was probably the fact that we pushed for a winner in the final minutes, leaving us exposed, rather than waiting for extra time to push on again. County took advantage of this to leave the 30k+ Hibs fans devastated, and me with some serious consoling to do with my boy.
The talk on the bus on the way home was that we now had no chance in the Scottish cup replay in just 3 days time. There was no way we’d be able to pick ourselves up for that. The players would be physically and mentally shattered. Oh how they proved us wrong. They dug in and a Tony Stokes double set up another trip to Hampden. This time against Dundee Utd, a side we’d already disposed of fairly easily this season in the league cup.
You wonder if it was fatigue or if the cup games were simply causing players to take their eye off the ball, but between the Inverness game and the Semi Final, we managed 1 win in 5 games. Dundee Utd in the meantime were trying and failing to get themselves off bottom spot in the Premier league. It was probably 2 of the least in-form teams in the country going head to head in the semi final of the biggest cup competition in the country! I even remember one journalist doing an article saying that if either of these teams went on to win the cup, they shouldn’t be allowed to play in Europe!
Anyway, the Semi final arrived, and a lot of Hibs fans said they didn’t care and that the game didn’t matter. It wasn’t a view I shared – it was still the semi final of the Scottish Cup against a team we were capable of beating. The game probably went exactly as you would expect it to go considering the form of both sides. But there were 2 big talking points. Jason Cummings’ penalty, and Conrad Logan. The less said about Jason’s penalty the better. He clearly wanted to get his name on the back pages the next morning, and even with his miss he would have managed it if it wasn’t for a certain Polar bear. A lot of people were surprised to see Logan starting the game, and were even more surprised when they saw him in the flesh (as there was a lot of it). But he quickly showed why he’d been signed to a English Premiership team for so long as he made a string of saves during the match, and then went on to save 2 penalties in the shootout, even with his unorthodox technique as the penalty taker approached him!! As usual we’d done it the hard way, but we were back in another Cup Final. Although my mate probably wasn’t alone in his thinking as he turned to me on the way out and said “does that F****** mean we’ve got to come back here AGAIN?”
The semi seemed to give us a boost as we went on to beat Rangers 3-2 (sound familiar) in the league a few days later, and finished the normal league season off with 2 more wins and a draw.
The draw was enough to end the season in 3rd place, below Falkirk, and this meant a play off game against Raith Rovers. Another trip to Kirkcaldy this time ended in defeat, but the players clearly had a point to prove at Easter Road as they raced into a 2-0 lead and we held onto this to set up a double header against Falkirk.
Going into these games I was quite confident. Falkirk had been a thorn in our side over the past two seasons but in reality they’d rarely beaten us. In the first leg at Easter Road, we played pretty well over the game but as usual we came away lamenting what could have been – a stonewall penalty turned down, some clearcut chances missed and a bit of dodgy goalkeeping to allow a late equaliser. But we went to the away game knowing what we were capable of, and if we played to our best, we would beat them, surely! Well, the first 30 minutes did not go to plan. We were limp and Falkirk deservedly took the lead. Then from almost nowhere, James Keatings got a quickfire double to put us in the lead, and we looked the much better team from that point. In all honesty tho, Falkirk got away with a refereeing decision again, as McCracken should have been sent off for the penalty that Keatings scored. You’d think we’d have learned how dangerous Falkirk were at the end of games, but clearly not. Even at 2-2 tho, we still looked the more likely to win the game in normal time, hitting the bar twice in the dying minutes, before McHugh again struck a late winner. The saddest part was, as Falkirk took that late throw in, everyone knew what was coming next!
I was scunnered, and I could not be bothered even thinking about the cup final the following week. Another year in this division was simply not worth thinking about. It was the strangest build up to a cup final I’d ever had. No sleepless nights, no day dreaming about Hibs lifting the trophy and how we’d celebrate back in Edinburgh. I didn’t even book the Monday off work like I normally do (what a mistake that turned out to be)
Little did we know that all the pain of this season (and previous) was about to all go away. Our pre-match was superb, and then the match, well the match just couldn’t have gone better if it was scripted. In fact, I think if someone had written our cup run as a script, it would have been turned down as being too unrealistic, too romantic. That weekend will simply go down as my greatest ever as a football fan. From the match to the sponsors event to the parade, simply outstanding. Christmas was easy for most Hibs fans this year I’m sure, as the choice of Cup Final memorabilia is finally brilliant. I have to say, the 4 days that FOLLOWED the parade were not so great. I did not realise it was possible to be hungover 4 days after drinking. And my fragile state meant any reading of cup final events caused the tears to flow. Over and over and over again. No Matter what else happened this year, that weekend meant that 2016 will be a weekend to never forget for Hibs fans. The year the curse was broken. 114 years no more. #Persevered
The summer that followed saw managerial changes, with the now Legend Alan Stubbs depart for Costa Del Rotherham, replaced by Champions league expert Neil Lennon. Most fans were behind this appointment. It certainly seemed to show ambition. Some were unsure (myself included) and if truth be told, 6 months later, we are still none the wiser to whether or not he is going to prove a success. We saw some changes in the playing squad too with heros Stokes, Henderson, Logan, Thomson and Gunnarson all departing as well as Chris Dagnall who departed without scoring a single goal for the club in 11 appearances, Farid El Alagui and Mark Oxley. Coming in was experienced striker Grant Holt, Israeli international keeper Ofir Marciano, Andrew Shinnie, and backup keeper Ross Laidlaw. We probably did not do enough business if I’m honest, but maybe we were hampered due to expecting a big fine on the back of the cup final. In any case, strong pre-season performances including a Europa league away win in Brondby followed by 5 league wins to start the season took the focus away from transfers. Cummings was on fire after signing his new contract, and we seemed strong at the back.
Some dodgy refereeing decisions seemed to hamper us in the following games, with Bartley getting sent off twice. Cummings’ goals seemed to dry up which saw him dropped to the bench, and then injuries to McGinn & Fyvie left us desperately short in midfield. This brought back to the fore the fact that we probably didn’t recruit strongly enough in the summer. We plodded on tho, hanging on to top spot, while Dundee Utd seemed to be building momentum, to the point that on Christmas Eve, dropped points to Raith allowed Utd to jump above us to top spot.
In recent weeks we’ve seen Kris Commons added to the squad as an emergency loan. In the first 2 games we haven’t really seen much from him but hopefully he finds some form for the coming Falkirk and Dundee Utd games. We’ve also seen a string of players come in on trial so it certainly looks like we’ll be adding a couple more players in January. Defensively we are fine. We still have one of the goals conceded columns in Britain, but at the other end we are struggling to score more than once in a game, which is causing us real problems. Going into Christmas in 2nd spot was not how we planned it but there is still plenty time to get things right and win this league. That is all that matters this season. The fans are out in numbers on the back of the cup win, and to fully take advantage of that in the long term, we really need to get up this season, overwise those 11,300 season ticket holders may well return to 7000 next season if we are faced with another season visiting Dumbarton, Ayr and Greenock.
We’ve seen last minute defeats in cup finals and play offs, we’ve lost managers and fan favourites, we’ve beaten Rangers and Hearts but lost to Dumbarton and Ayr. Its Certainly been one helluva rollercoaster year. But thanks to the 21st May, it has undoubtedly been, A very Good Year.
Happy New year to all Hibees when it comes!!