Five years on the events of Dundee United’s manic end to the 2015-2016 season are still clear in John Rankin’s mind.
He recounts April 16 particularly vividly, hardly missing a beat describing how debutant Conrad Logan put his frame between United and a place in the 2016 Scottish Cup Final time and time again.
“If that day taught me anything, it’s never to judge anybody by how they look,” the 37-year-old Hearts youth coach said.
“The goalkeeper looked like a bus driver, he did, and that’s not being disrespectful because he was absolutely brilliant.
“In my opinion, he won Hibs the cup. He was brilliant that day and Hibs needed that wee rub of the green.
“It was just unfortunate for ourselves because we were on the opposite end of it. The goalkeeper was virtually an unknown but came in and he was immense, particularly in the shoot-out at the end.
“I remember having a shot from about 25-30 yards that was going in the bottom corner but, again, he got there.
“I was thinking: ‘This goalkeeper’s actually better than what we’ve gave him credit for’.
“That was the biggest frustration on our part.”
The Hibees would go on to win it all – ending a 114-year wait to get their hands on the old trophy, with unorthodox Irish goalkeeper Logan the hero after saving two United penalties in the last-four shoot-out.
After their 2014 Scottish Cup Final loss to St Johnstone, for Rankin and the Terrors it was more heartache that would soon turn to misery with Premiership relegation a few short weeks later.
“I had five years there and I absolutely loved it,” the former Hibs man continued.
“I’m sorry it ended the way it did.”
‘I always remember coming off at County having broken two or three ribs and thinking: ‘I need to be fit for the semi’
Thankfully for Ranks, though, United are back on their feet after five years in the wilderness, coming full circle as they take on Hibs as a Premiership outfit in a last-four clash at Hampden on Saturday.
Recalling the build-up to that same meeting five years ago – the match ended 0-0 after extra time with the Hibees winning 4-2 on penalties – the former Tangerines midfielder is methodical.
“I remember we had come from behind up at Ross County, I think we were down to nine men that day, to set up a semi-final against Hibs,” Rankin said.
“I always remember coming off at County having broken two or three ribs and going to the hospital the night after thinking: ‘I need to be fit for the semi’.
“I was desperate to play.
“The game came around pretty quickly and (boss) Mixu (Paatelainen) tried something different – I think he had Callum Morris at left-back.
“The biggest surprise that day was Simon Murray not being on the bench. Those two things always stick out in my head as to why it didn’t go well.
“We got an absolute doing for the first 15-20 minutes but we managed to stay in the game, Mixu made an early substitution with Callum going off and Paul Dixon coming on.
“The game changed really quickly and we started to get a foothold.
“When Jason Cummings took that penalty and missed it trying to chip the goalkeeper, I went round all our players and tried to fire them up because I thought it was disrespectful.
“It was such a big game for both us and them. I’d played for Hibs before and I knew their history of not winning the Scottish for a long time so I know how big a moment that was.
“I tried to rally the troops from then on in and, at half-time, myself and Pates (Paul Paton) were both speaking, Mixu had a go and at that point we realised we’re in a Scottish Cup semi-final.
“It was a break from the league so let’s go and try to play.
“In the second half, we had a couple of opportunities through Billy Mckay and Henri Anier to try to get a goal but it went to extra time.
“At that point, I can always remember Hibs had a tough schedule and they actually looked knackered.
“They’d lost a League Cup Final to Ross County, were pushing in the Championship and I remember looking at Paul Hanlon and John McGinn and they looked like they had nothing left in the tank.
“The longer the game went on I thought: ‘There’s only going to be one winner here’.
“We looked fitter and stronger but, credit to those guys because they managed to dig out the result that day.”
No silver lining to time at Tannadice
Relegation to the Championship, where United would remain for four years until promotion last term, signalled an end to Rankin’s time in tangerine, clocking 207 appearances from 2011-16.
Although he looks back with fondness, Ranks admits, having come close on a few occasions, not picking up a winners medal at Tannadice is still sore.
He added: “The Scottish Cup Final in 2014 was probably the hardest one to take because the run we’d been on – Kilmarnock, St Mirren, Inverness, Rangers – they’re all top teams, even with Rangers out of the Prem at the time.
“To get to the final and not win was hard.
“We beat them in the first game between us that season but St Johnstone knew exactly what we were doing, our strengths and weaknesses, and we never managed to get out of second gear.
“It was disappointing but, fair play, they scored just before half time and it took the wind out of our sails.
“It was the quietest dressing-room I’d ever been in at half time that day.
“We were looking for something, a spark, and I think Nadir (Ciftci) hit the post, Ryan Dow hit the post, but it didn’t happen.
“Everything that probably could’ve went wrong did.
“I was really disappointed not to win something in my time at Tannadice.”
Tangerines look hungry for success reckons Ranks
Safe in the top flight under Micky Mellon and headed into the biggest game the club’s faced since his day, Rankin is delighted to see United ‘back where they belong’.
And, although it won’t make up for all his near-misses in tangerine, the former favourite sees a team keen to create better memories.
“When the club went down, it was a hard time,” Rankin recalled.
“There was a clear out and they tried to persevere with the two or three managers that came in.
“Robbie (Neilson) gains promotion and it’s good to see them back in the Premiership where they belong.
“It’s just a case now of challenging for major honours like United did when I was there.
“We played in two cup finals, lost a few semis, too. They’re always there or thereabouts and it’s good to see them challenging again.”
He continued: “I’ve seen Hibs a few times this season and they’ve been great, they’ve got pace in the wide areas.
“(Martin) Boyle’s a massive threat for them and they’ve got the two strikers (Kevin Nisbet and Christian Doidge) as well that bounce off one another.
“Having seen United recently, I think they’re concentrating on the cup because they’ve got nothing to play for in the league. It’s too tight to call.
“Hibs have been in this position before. They were in the semi-final the last time against Hearts, lost that, and lost to St Johnstone in the League Cup as well.
“It’s their third semi-final of the season and I’m sure they’ll be very hungry to put things right but it’ll all come down to who manages it better on the day.
“United were phenomenal at Aberdeen a couple of weeks ago. To go up there and win 3-0 in the cup, they’re definitely hungry for success that’s for sure.”