There are hoodoos and then there is Hibernian’s hoodoo. Tomorrow afternoon the Edinburgh club and its supporters will cross Scotland to Hampden Park accompanied by enough historical baggage to weigh down even the most optimistic traveller from the country’s capital to its football capital.
It is 111 years since Hibs last lifted the Scottish Cup. There have been ample opportunities in the intervening years for a repeat; Sunday’s meeting with Celtic will be their 10th final since the same opponents were beaten at the same venue in 1902.
“The Scottish Cup hoodoo is part and parcel of being a Hibs player,” said John Collins, a former Hibs player and manager, and once of Celtic too. It was never more painfully so than last year when the M8 that connects Scotland’s two rival cities was crowded with Hibs and Hearts fans heading for Hampden. Hearts came home with the cup and a 5-1 victory.
James McPake, Hibs’ captain who scored in last year’s final, acknowledged that the long list of final failure has become something of an obsession around the club and its supporters. “I think there is, yes,” said the 28-year-old Northern Irishman.
There is though reason for a flicker of optimism. Hibs’ path to the final has been tough; the first three rounds presented SPL opposition via Hearts, and a modicum of payback, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock. Then in the semi-final they were three down within half hour to Falkirk of the First Division.
It was Leigh Griffiths who scored the semi-final winner in extra time and it was the same player who scored the only goal four days after Christmas to beat Celtic in the SPL. Honours are even in three meetings with the champions this season, a win each and a draw.
“Leigh Griffiths can score goals and if Hibs score the first goal they have a chance,” said Collins. The 22-year-old has scored 28 times this season, a success rate that has won him a place in the national side but also made it more likely that this may prove his last appearance for the club he has supported since boyhood. Griffiths is on loan from Wolves, who have signalled their intent to have him back to play in League One next season, a prospect that does not appeal to Griffiths.
Collins pointed to Wigan as an example for Hibs to follow, but Celtic are strong favourites to complete the domestic double and wrap up a season in which the club has happily thrived. The lack of the Old Firm rivalry has not resulted in a drop in their standard, far from it. Champions League progress and victory over Barcelona was the highlight but that has had the consequence of creating an air of uncertainty over Celtic Park as to what happens next. Griffiths may not be heading for a higher calling but there are those in the Celtic side, and on the touchlines, who are wanted by supposed betters.
Neil Lennon will meet Peter Lawwell, the club’s chief executive, after the final to discuss the future. He is on a rolling contract and while he has repeatedly stated his contentment at Celtic Park the ambition to manage in the Premier League is there, and there are vacancy signs south of the border.
Victor Wanyama, suspended tomorrow, and Gary Hooper have yet to agree new deals with the Kenyan midfielder in particular attracting a number of suitors. Lennon the realist accepts it as a fact of modern football life – his approach to moulding and nurturing young talent, well-scouted bargains and others’ cast offs is one of the skills that makes him an attractive managerial option.