Saturday, May 25, 2013

Scottish Cup: Hibs Hibs Hooray?

One year and one week on.

Again we trudge to our buses, looking like the club shop has thrown up on us, ready to troop through to Hampden.

Ready to watch Hibs wrestle with their Scottish Cup destiny. Part 111.

An unlikely final appearance.

The first consecutive finals since 1923 and 1924 (those losses courtesy of Celtic and Airdie).

Another final reached in a season of patchy - if improved - league form.

An unlikely manager.

A twitchier Rod Petrie might have jettisoned Pat Fenlon after last year's final.

A twitchier Rod Petrie might have had second thoughts during the mid season SPL malaise.

His mind must have almost have been made up just 28 minutes into this year's semi final, a flimsy Hibs buffeted by a Falkirk who couldn't quite believe their luck.

Yet Fenlon came through and delivered unto Petrie's piggy bank the proceeds of another cup final appearance.

The first Hibs manager to reach two national cup finals since Alex Miller.

That achievement took Miller seven years. It's taken Fenlon just 18 months.

The first manager to lead a team other than Celtic or Rangers to two Scottish Cup finals in a row since Jim McLean battled his own cup hoodoo with Dundee United in the 1980s.

In another place we might hail Fenlon as a modest history maker already.

That we don't can be blamed on that stuttery league form, that pitiful day last May and the weightier history of Scottish Cup scars stretching beyond Scotland's collective living memory.

The route to this year's final was not without challenges.

The psychological barrier of beating Hearts in Hibs first Scottish Cup game since "that" day. The turgid spectacle of yet another clash with Aberdeen. The yapping of Kenny Shiels on a vist to Rugby Park.

Then that semi final - the easiest game on paper turned into an ultimately exhilarating battle by a paper thin defence.

Now Celtic. The hardest of the lot. The SPL champions who won more games this season than Hibs have won in the last two.

Celtic, perennial botherers of the SPL's top spots against Hibs, of late trapped in risky relegation battles or assorted bottom six bore-offs.

They've met at this stage before. A 1-0 win for Hibs, the last win, in 1902 with another Irishman calling the shots. A stalemate in 1914, followed by a 4-1 Celtic win in the replay.

A 1-0 Celtic win in that 1923 final. A 6-1 Celtic win in 1972 and then a 3-0 win in 2001.

Four Celtic wins, one Hibs win. 14 Celtic goals, three Hibs goals.

And, while Hibs are not alone in being embarrassed by four or more goals in a final, no team has ever recovered their cup equilibrium quickly enough to return and make amends the following year.

As ever when Hibs and Celtic clash, form and ability favours the west.

As ever when Hibs and the Scottish Cup clash, history favours the agony being prolonged for yet another year.

Bereft of expectation, hope offers us Hibs fans a life raft to cling to as we float on our dreams along the M8.

Unlikely? Definitely. Impossible? Not a bit of it.

Have Hibs not got a better win percentage at Hampden than Celtic over the last couple of seasons?

Are those chastening experiences last May and in that pathetic half hour against Falkirk not simply Hampden learning experiences, not killing us but making us stronger?

Have this year's preparations - on the field and, free from daft trips to Ireland, off the field - not been much improved?

Have Wigan and Atl├ętico Madrid - and before them Swansea and St Mirren - not shown that unlikely cup final wins are in fashion?

Does the strange life of Leigh Griffiths - talisman, father, daft laddie, finisher, trouble magnet - not demand a defining moment in green?

Is the first Sabbath final not the ideal occasion for answered prayers and redemption?

Does history not, at some stage, have to stop spitting in your face?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Everything that surrounds the game, the raw emotion that a Hibs win would deliver, is meaningless for 90 minutes.

Play like idiots, become a laughing stock. Been there, done that.

Play well, take any slice of luck that comes your way, hope that Celtic again mislay their Hampden mojo and anything is possible.

Like last year, tears won't come with defeat. It's winning that will reduce this fan to a gibbering, sniffling wreck.

So there we are. Pat Fenlon, history maker.

Go ahead, son. Make me cry.

Stewart Regan: A job well paid

Was it really just last week that Stewart Regan was lecturing Scottish football on the financial uncertainties of the ongoing league reconstruction farrago?

He also took time out to tell us that he loved his job.

Well he might, with today's news of an "inflation-busting" pay rise of 13.5 percent.

It's tricky to greet his good fortune without sounding like a Taxpayers' Alliance spokesman screeching to the Daily Mail.

I don't know the details of Regan's contract or what measure is used to gauge his performance. Maybe he gets a bonus for being in stressful situation, but would he not only deserve that if he ever looked at all troubled by what's going on?

It seems hard to believe in this Scottish footballing year that anyone could put two and two together and come up with £33,000 extra for the rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights chief executive.

It's exactly the sort of public relations misstep that makes you wonder what it is the SFA actually see, ensconced in their ivory tower, gazing down on us proles.

While Regan stresses the work he oversees at grassroots level, his most public persona is of a man dithering while football smoulders.

Grassroots work takes time to prove itself to a sceptical public, the idea of a crisis engulfing the game - an idea he has repeatedly endorsed - is more immediate and his contribution to solving that crisis often seems negligible.

It's common in such situations to compare the salary of the high profile fat cat to that of the Prime Minister - and in 2012 Regan's wage was almost double that of David Cameron's.

A cynic might suggest that you could put the two of them together and still not get a leader.

But the leadership of football does seem to be concerning Cameron's government, with sports minister Hugh Robertson apparently ready to introduce legislation to force the pace of change in English football.

Those plans include a licensing system for clubs, a more representative FA board and improved supporter engagement at club level.

Three ideas that would also be worthwhile in Scotland.

It's important to approach with caution the idea of the UK government getting something positive done. And the government's own approach must be cautious, given UEFA's dislike of interference in national associations.

But if there is a way to manage legislation for positive change, could we learn from it?

The Scottish Government's forays into football haven't always gained them universal adulation.

Yet nor does their public silence on certain issues of real concern in the game sit easily with their willingness to share in any possible moment of reflected sporting glory.

I'm not sure I'd trust politicians of any hue to make a better fist of running the game than the present incumbents but I am interested to see where Hugh Robertson's latest act of brinkmanship leads English football.

If a legislative rocket kick starts change, Holyrood would do well to follow the UK lead.

Because while we might not have a footballing Armageddon, the SFA paying Stewart Regan over £280,000 a year is yet another sign of the game disappearing up its own arse.