THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
FRIDAY night football under the floodlights in Edinburgh was an enticing temptation. Especially when it involved a trip to the Leith side of Edinburgh to see Caley Thistle take on Premiership Hibs in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals.
I was there amongst the ICT fans, many of whom had clearly enjoyed their trip south on the snowy roads or rails. The drum in the away end added real atmosphere and the supporters – down in decent numbers despite it being live on TV – never stopped singing and urging their team on – even when the match was beyond reach in reality.
It was set up to be a mouthwatering tie broadcast live on BBC Scotland. Could Hearts legend John Robertson lead his Championship promotion contenders into their second successive Hampden semi-final, his fourth for the club alone over two spells?
He got his side to the last four in the National Stadium in 2002/03 when they lost to Dundee then again the season after when a Craig Brewster goal helped Dunfermline knock them out in a midweek replay at a sparse Pittodrie after a Hampden 1-1 draw.
This time, it was a bridge too far in their bid to reach another semi as a tie packed with drama and incident finished 5-2 to Hibs.
A home penalty appeal denied, another one saved, then five Hibs goals mixed amid ICT pulling it back to 3-1, a red card for Brad McKay for a reckless challenge and time too for a last-gasp second Caley Jags goal from Nikolay Todorov made it gripping from start to finish.
That sore scoreline would suggest a one-sided training session for the top-flight team, but the Highlanders were in this until Brad McKay’s red card took it away from them. The Inverness team, backed by their vocal fans, were up for it and looked far from stage-scared in the early exchanges.
They did survive a scary moment though when, rather than a penalty be awarded to Hibs when Martin Boyle seemed felled in the box by keeper Mark Ridgers, the home winger was booked for simulation. For me, ICT dodged a bullet. It looked like a penalty from where I was sitting. However, Hibs were awarded a penalty soon after for a Kevin McHattie tug on Marc McNulty but Ridgers superbly judged Paul Hanlon’s spot-kick to save it, maybe helped by direction instructions from ex-Hibee James Keatings.
It was toe-to-toe stuff with chances at both sides, with Caley Thistle’s Tom Walsh pulling a shot wide then seeing goalkeeper Omir Marciano stop a decent effort at 0-0. However, seven minutes before half-time Hibs nudged ahead through a neat Adam Jackson finish. That opener came from a hotly-disputed free-kick and there was a real sense of frustration at that being awarded by referee Nick Walsh.
Caley Thistle tested Hibs early in the second half as they came out on the front foot. However, a swift counter attack from Hibs led to a second goal just before the hour mark when Scott Allan scored from an inch-perfect McNulty assist.
Again, there was notable anger from Inverness as captain Carl Tremarco had appeared to have been fouled in the Hibs box and the ‘no penalty’ call sparked that lethal Hibs breakaway. Robbo was still raging afterwards, strongly believing it should have been a penalty for his team and a red card for offender Lewis Stevenson, although he did concede Hibs should have been given their early penalty too. The visitors were all at sea at this sense of injustice and Hibs went in for the kill as Greg Docherty added a third goal on 71 minutes.
The away fans never gave up in song and volume, despite the tie being seemingly out of reach. That faint hope of a remarkable late comeback was heightened when Tremarco’s deflected shot was just reward for his never-say-die surge into the Hibs box. It was 3-1 with 17 minutes left. However, just one minute later defender Brad McKay paid the price for a badly mistimed challenge on Christian Doidge.
The former Jambo was shown a straight red card much to the glee of the bouncing home fans, who only found their voices when their team took the lead. This latest blow was followed by fine goals from fresh-legged subs Stephane Omeonga and Adam Gullan as the scoreboard in the South Stand we occupied made for grim viewing. ICT substitute Nikolay Todorov poked home a late second goal but it was far too late for miracles with just two minutes to go.
The gutted players and management, to a man, headed over to applaud the away supporters, who were watched by a crazy number of stewards all night. There was a lot to be proud of, even although the result indicates otherwise. John Robertson, despite his frustration at key moments going against his men, stressed Hibs deserved to win.
Hibs – under relatively new manager Jack Ross – have been on the up and there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way if they peak when it matters most.
While troubled Hearts over in Gorgie will need to pull out all the stops to avoid relegation, the Hibees, who in 2016 won the Scottish Cup the year after Caley Thistle to end a 130-year wait, have had quite a turnaround since Ross’ arrival in November.
The ex-St Mirren then Sunderland gaffer has added flair with fight and a dash of attitude and belief to transform the Green and Whites from relegation candidates like their old city rivals into genuine challengers for third spot along with shock troops Livingston up against faltering Motherwell and Aberdeen.
Ahead of this Tuesday’s Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, Hibs are 18 points richer than a Hearts team marooned to bottom spot with just 11 fixtures left to get out of danger.
Caley Thistle will watch what Daniel Stendel’s team do because they could well meet in May’s promotion-relegation shoot-out. Would ICT prefer Hearts, who ended their Scottish Cup dream at Hampden last April under Craig Levein, to climb up to 10th as many folk expect will still happen? Right now, they are two points away from Hamilton with a game in hand and six points adrift of St Mirren, who are one place higher.
Hearts have massively under-achieved but, with ex-Ross County striker Liam Boyce now in their ranks and Steven Naismith fit and firing once more, they’ll be tougher nuts to crack backed by their fervent support home and away.
Perhaps Caley Thistle would prefer a Hamilton, St Mirren or (dare I say it) Ross County in the play-offs, although Billy McKay’s recent revival and goals suggests the Dingwall club will finish above the drop zone.
The Scottish Cup has gone for this season for ICT, so it’s now full steam ahead for Robbo’s troops on Tuesday when Morton come calling. They face a fight with Ayr, Dundee, Arbroath, Dunfermline and even perhaps Morton for the three promotion play-off positions. Finishing as the next best team after champions-in-waiting Dundee United would give them those two vital less games to fit in amid a frantic chase to the finish.
March alone looks like a marathon for Caley Thistle. Tuesday’s home tussle with Morton is followed by six more matches before April and Easter arrives. The last of those in March (on the 28th) is when Raith Rovers await them in the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Cup final in Perth. Hopefully ICT – with striker James Keatings free to play after his red card was finally quashed by the Scottish FA – will still have enough energy in their legs for that latest shot at glory.
* Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm. This week is a special preview of the Coogie Urquhart Snowman Rally, which the station will be covering from start to finish this Saturday.
Tune in on Friday for exclusive interviews with 2016 Snowman Rally champion Donnie MacDonald from Inverness and experienced north navigator Charlie Mackenzie. Listen via the Tune In app, the station’s website or through your smart speakers.