Part of the magic of the Scottish Cup is that it offers the space for hope even in the gloomiest of league seasons. A shot at glory for all involved and a chance to look forward with optimism.
But as Hibs fans traipsed out of Tynecastle last week, they’d be forgiven for not being enthused about a trip to Hampden for a re-match with their city rivals just seven days later.
After a bright start in the league derby, a second half performance Shaun Maloney called ‘unacceptable’ left many from the green and white side of Edinburgh fearing the worst about this weekend’s semi-final.
As the week progressed, there’s been a push from those within the club to rally supporters for a game that could breathe new life into their season.
First, Hibs captain Paul Hanlon urged his team-mates to use the pain they felt to fire them on, then the manager, who appeared to be less than impressed with Hearts post-match celebrations, urged them to ‘change the narratives’ of their respective campaigns.
Those narratives, so far, have been in complete contrast. Hearts, on their first season back in the Premiership, are flying high in third place, with manager Robbie Neilson admitting they have an opportunity to make an ‘already good season, a great season’ by clinching their first major silverware in ten years. After protests following last season’s cup exit to Brora Rangers, Neilson has bounced back in emphatic fashion and created a squad full of attacking intent and belief that they can achieve something.
If they can progress this afternoon and secure European group stage football, it would surely go a long way to banishing any lingering sceptism from a minority of supporters.
Hibs, having switched managers half way through the campaign before losing their top scorer in Martin Boyle, go in search of redemption after being consigned to the bottom six.
Maloney says he’s seen a positive response in the dressing room and he’s optimistic that the debrief will bring a much stronger performance at the national stadium. They’ve also got plenty of recent experience of getting
through semi-finals, reaching the finals of the last two major cup competitions.
This tournament has also delivered some of their best performances in recent months, with the away victory over Motherwell, with an injury-ravaged side, a particular high point.
Maloney believes the return of Ryan Porteous – who’s in the middle of a four-game league suspension – will give them ‘a personality on the pitch that is different from most in their squad.’ But it’s at the other end of
the pitch that Hibs fans have felt the most frustration. Boyle’s departure, then Kevin Nisbet’s injury has left them struggling in front of goal.
Last week’s result and recent form would appear to give Hearts the edge going into this afternoon, but despite this Neilson warns they can’t get carried away and says today’s clash is the “real big one” for them.
But Maloney is eyeing an opportunity to banish the memories of previous defeats and find an undisputable high that can change how Hibs’ season is viewed.
It’s a ‘real big one’ for both sides, and the result will have a huge effect on the story of the season for both.