IT wasn't so long ago, reckons Michael O'Neill, that players used to dread playing for Hibs. Now, teams mainly dread playing against them.
The Easter Road side have lost just four times all season – including three times to Rangers – as they piece together a campaign which sees them still in the hunt for a remarkable three trophies as February begins. The Northern Ireland manager, former Hibs player and current Auld Reekie resident puts this all down to manager Alan Stubbs, and the canny recruitment which has allowed him to assemble a side unencumbered by the failures of the past. With a League Cup final appearance against Ross County to come in mid-March, Hibs will take a major step towards laying their 114-year ghost in the William Hill Scottish Cup if they can take care of their capital rivals Hearts at Tynecastle in the fifth round on Sunday.
"There was a period before Alan when the players just looked like they dreaded playing for Hibs a bit," said O'Neill. "The Hibs fans are demanding and sometimes if players come from clubs with less demands and expectations they can struggle a bit. But they have been starved of success for so long that they have that right.
"You don’t see that now," he added. "You have players there who are all keen to prove themselves. You have [Fraser] Fyvie coming back up from England. [Dylan] McGeouch and [Liam] Henderson who are away from Celtic, although only McGeouch on a permanent basis. And [John] McGinn coming from St Mirren. Going to Hibs has been a step up for these players and you see that in how they play.
"Alan has been very patient in his recruitment. He waited to get the right ones in. Ultimately, that has proven to be a big plus because their recruitment has been excellent. What they now have is a young, hungry, energetic team. It is a team that will certainly be confident of going to win on Sunday."
O'Neill spent three years as a player at Easter Road, making approximately 100 appearances, after spells at Newcastle United and Dundee United. He might even have been appointed manager four years back, were it not, as he suggests, for an erroneous whispering campaign that he had a drink problem.
While he looks back on his time at the club fondly, he had the misfortune to be part of the team at Easter Road in February 1994 when Wayne Foster wrote himself into Hearts immortality. The Englishman scored with four minutes remaining and hopped over the advertising hoardings to celebrate at the Hearts end after clinching the first meeting between the two teams in a knockout competition for 15 years. It also stretched the Gorgie club's unbeaten run in that fixture to five years. "It was a heartbreaker to say the least," recalled O'Neill. "We thought we were obviously going to a replay but Wayne Foster wrote his name into folklore that day, he is still fondly remembered for that goal."
Things, of course, have got significantly worse since then for Hibs and their relationship with their city rivals in the cup. While the Easter Road club did knock out Hearts en route to losing in the final in 2012, even that was insufficient to erase the memory of the 5-1 thumping they suffered to the city rivals in the 2011 final, or perhaps a whopping 4-0 semi-final defeat in 2006. While O'Neill feels this new Hibs team can begin to re-write those wrongs, he also knows they must compete physically with a robust Hearts side if they are to have any chance on Sunday.
"Hearts fans will never let Hibs fans get over the 5-1, let’s be honest, and I’m sure it will rear its head again on Sunday," said O'Neill. "But there are only one or two players involved in that game who could be again, so I don’t think that will affect the Hibs boys going forward.
"You always have to believe there is a new dawn when there is a new manager and a new team," he added. "To be fair to Alan, last week was a big win for them. Last year in the Scottish Cup semi final, they played well, they didn't deserve to lose, but they lost again and people say it is the same scenario, Hibs losing again, falling at the semi final or a play-off or whatever. But to win on Saturday – at Tynecastle – was very important.
“They have a lot of good young Scottish players and that’s a positive. But Hearts have a physical edge in terms of the players they’ve brought in and one thing Alan will have to try and match is the physical side."
That number, 114 years and counting, since their last win in the Scottish Cup can seem like a millstone but O'Neill reckons it is a statistic which weighs down the fans more than the players. “It’s just a number and whether it’s 114 or 150 it doesn’t matter," said the Northern Irishman, who will lead his nation to their first major finals since 1986 this summer. "It’s a long time since they’ve won the cup. But Northern Ireland hadn’t won a friendly game for something like five years and I used to say ‘I’ve only been in charge for two years!’. I said they couldn’t throw the friendly results of the previous manager at me."
**Michael O’Neill was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup