Scottish League Cup final: Hibs & Ross County share same dream
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|Scottish League Cup final: Hibernian v Ross County|
|Date: Sunday, 13 March Venue: Hampden Park Kick-off: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch on BBC Two Scotland; listen on Radio Scotland; TV, radio & text coverage on BBC Sport website|
The Scottish League Cup final brings Ross County and Hibernian together, but they are clubs defined by their contrasts.
The Dingwall side only joined the Scottish Football League in 1994 and have yet to win either of the major cup competitions. This is their first appearance in the League Cup final.
Hibernian have long been established as one of the Scottish game's leading teams, they have won a raft of major honours and are aiming for their fourth League Cup triumph in their 10th final.
By other measures, the clubs are distinct. County's average home attendance is 4,254, while at Easter Road it is 9,239. The latter draws fans from a concentrated metropolitan area, the former from a swathe of the Highlands.
Even the respective build-ups to the final have been marked by their differences, with Hibs heading for a warm-weather training camp in Spain and County maintaining their normal routine at home. Yet these two clubs, from different backgrounds, different environments and different divisions carry the same hopes into their meeting at Hampden.
It is to gild a season of solid achievement with the triumph of a cup final win. Regardless of their circumstances, both understand the significance of the occasion, and how it will mark reputations and future ambitions.
County have reached a Hampden final once before, when Derek Adams took his side south to face Dundee United in the 2010 Scottish Cup, only to fall short to Peter Houston's side. They were joined by almost 20,000 County supporters, though, some ex-pats from all over the world returning briefly for a reminder of past lives.
Dingwall will empty again, with many of its population of around 6,000 happy to make the long journey down. A cup final doesn't shape a team or its foundations, but it can define an era. That moment in history is forever relived by supporters down the generations.
For County, the sense of their place in the game is built on lower league achievements. Yet this campaign has felt like a resurgence, with the team building on a strong end to last season by making a credible pitch to finish in the top six, which they have managed only once before.
They are, in so many respects, a product of the vision and personality of the chairman Roy MacGregor, who built a global business but remains firmly rooted in Dingwall. His influence extends to County's approach to the game, since he wants a style of play that entertains supporters.
|County's key players|
|Liam Boyce is likely to carry the Staggies' main goal threat. The Northern Ireland international has added 18 goals to last season's tally of 11 as Ross County have maintained a top-six position for most of the campaign. Goals had dried up in the first few months of 2016 but Boyce netted his first of the calendar year in Saturday's Scottish Cup defeat by Dundee United.|
|Australian international Jackson Irvine is likely to be backing up County's attack from midfield. His consistency of performance in a defensive midfield role has been key to County's season and the former Celtic player is usually a first pick for Jim McIntyre.|
The manager, Jim McIntyre, changed the culture of the football side of the club when he arrived last season, moving on from the short-term contracts and high turnover that his predecessor Adams employed. There were shrewd signings from British football, like Andrew Davies and Jackson Irvine, but also from abroad in the likes of Alex Schalk.
County are high-energy, with clever, creative wide players and - more often than not - two strikers up front. McIntyre took over a squad that he felt was not as fit as the players he left behind at his previous club, Queen of the South, but now has a side that represents his values, of application, industry, and an attacking edge.
They will approach the final bearing only the weight of their ambition, even if McIntyre says the team's progress won't be complete unless they win.
Hibs fighting on three fronts
Hibs have a heavier burden, since returning to the top-flight has always been the priority of this campaign.
Alan Stubbs' side has lost ground to the Championship leaders Rangers in recent weeks, with their form having suddenly collapsed. The manager has been canny and resourceful in his time at Easter Road though, and the break in Spain was in part to ensure that his players did not succumb to so much nervous energy that they are flat in the final.
In terms of quality, Hibs have Premiership players in the likes of John McGinn, Liam Henderson, Jason Cummings and Lewis Stevenson, while Anthony Stokes is on loan from Celtic. Their route to the final involved knocking out Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Johnstone, with Hearts also beaten in the Scottish Cup.
If the core of the Hibs side might be considered young, and so inexperienced, the exuberance of their talent is compensation enough. They have also enjoyed playing top-flight sides because the games are more open and there is more space to operate in, which suits Stubbs' players.
The Hibs manager will make time to speak to mentors before the final, including Kenny Dalglish and Davie Moyes, but he is forging his own path in management. The side he has built at Easter Road is vibrant and impressive, with a midfield diamond, attacking full-backs and in Cummings and Stokes, a dangerous front pairing.
|Hibernian's key players|
|Jason Cummings has lit up Hibs' season with 20 goals so far this term. The 20-year-old has scored in the last four Edinburgh derbies against Hearts and in three of this season's four meetings with Rangers. His rise in professional football is remarkable, having worked as a gardener after being released by Hearts in 2012.|
|Liam Henderson has been a creative force in midfield for Alan Stubbs' side this season. The 19-year-old joined Hibs on loan from Celtic at the start of the season, helping to fill the gap left by Scott Allan's move to the Premiership champions.Henderson has been an almost ever-present ever since and has weighed in with five goals, including some classy free-kick efforts. In the absence of Dylan McGeouch's graft, Henderson may have to shoulder the responsibility of driving Hibs forward at Hampden.|
The final is everything for County, and part of a wider ambition for Hibs. For one club it would be a momentous piece of history, for the other an addition to past glories.
Yet it is what separates them on the day that will be significant. Nerve, courage, and composure are all factors. Ability and industry, too. For all the contrasts, the game itself will be closely competitive. The triumph, when it comes, will have to be hard-earned.