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The Scottish Mail on Sunday - 2021-11-21

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Recent Hampden semi-final record not a concern for upbeat Hibs manager

Premier Sports Shop

By Fraser Mackie

FAR from weighed down by the worries about recent history, Jack Ross senses his players are primed to seize today’s opportunity and obliterate all hints of a lingering Hampden hangover. Ross detects no residual bad vibes linked to losing three times at the national stadium last season, on two occasions at the last-four stage. In contrast, after watching them in their work on the build-up to confronting Rangers, the Hibs boss has witnessed a squad comfortable with the demand not to let another shot at silverware slip. This is familiar territory. Ross has guided the Leith men to the semi-finals of each of the four cup tournaments of his reign. The quirk of the 2019/20 season spilling over saw an Edinburgh derby semi-final of the Scottish Cup staged last October. Hibs lost after extra time to Hearts, then of the Championship. St Johnstone comfortably took care of Ross’s side in the League Cup last-four then prevailed again in the Scottish Cup final. Ross insists his men are not damaged by those experiences. He said: ‘We realise there were missed opportunities for us — and I don’t mean in terms of who we were playing and all that nonsense. ‘I just mean being in semi-finals. This is as good an opportunity for us on Sunday as any last year because it can take us closer to winning something. ‘I sense that feeling around the players. I’ve been really pleased with how they’ve trained, their mood, their mindset. A lot of them recognise they don’t want another chance to slip by them in terms of winning silverware.’ Ross is convinced any chance of bad memories infiltrating player thoughts at Hampden will be washed away by the appearance of a boisterous Leith support. The environment, he insists, bears no relation to the soulless one in which Hibernian thrived only when dispatching Dundee United in May to reach the Scottish Cup showpiece. ‘The interesting thing this weekend is the crowd, that’s hugely different,’ stressed Ross. ‘All stadiums were different last year but Hampden, in particular, is an eerie place to play when there’s no fans. ‘The pitch is so far away from everything. Even arriving at the stadium was strange and there was nobody there. So a very different feel around the arrival at the stadium, I would suggest, would bring out the best in players.’ When quizzed on any alteration to routine, Ross admitted sourcing opinion from his trusted stars. ‘I don’t really buy into superstition, but I ask my playing group if they are comfortable or if there were any issues,’ he revealed. ‘You always look back at your preparation and think of things you could do differently. ‘Ironically, the week before the Scottish Cup final last year went brilliantly, for me, as manager. Yet we were rubbish on the day. Which just shows you there’s no exact science in it.’ Christian Doidge, a scorer in both the victory over United and the loss to Hearts, returns to the squad with Ross relishing the chance to pitch the striker in against the Rangers defence. The Welshman was expected to miss the remainder of the year when sustaining Achilles damage in August after he’d scored in each of the opening Premiership wins. His comeback ahead of schedule represents ‘a huge boost’, according to Ross. ‘He’s difficult for defenders to play against,’ added the Easter Road boss. ‘Christian gives us a different option in terms of how we want to play, particularly at this time of year. ‘It’s an interesting one because we had a lot of good results without him, we continued our good form from earlier in the season. But what it does highlight is, when you don’t have depth, either to start or change games, it becomes harder. ‘Having him back in the squad gives us different options and we’re getting him back probably a month ahead of schedule, which is a big bonus.’ Kevin Nisbet, with only one goal in nearly three months, is expected to be one of the chief benefactors of Doidge’s availability. Chided by pundit Tam McManus for ‘not working hard enough’ without his strike partner, Nisbet retained his place in the Scotland squad but hasn’t looked as effective burdened with the load of leading the Hibs line. ‘Take those goals and assists that Christian provides out of any team and it would be a blow for them,’ stressed Ross. ‘Subsequently, the responsibility has fallen on Martin (Boyle) and Kevin in that time. We’ve had to keep going to them, even if they’re off form or low in confidence. ‘We’ve been a little restricted in terms of natural strikers — and Christian very much is that with his aerial ability, strength and intelligence of movement.’

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