In a sense, they were celebrating, or at least commemorating the occasion; even in defeat they would have felt a rush of virtue. They had declared something in this display, something of their own worth but also something a little more profound.

In playing with a boldness that allowed for brief moments of authority, the Ayrshire side revealed a clear ambition. It was to deliver the best of themselves despite the great disparity between Hibernian and the team that won last season’s Super League Premier Division.

Irvine Meadow became the first side from junior football to face a Premier League club in the Scottish Cup and their performance, however singular and distinct this fourth-round tie was, can be seen in a wider context. If senior football in Scotland ever embraces the concept of opening up the lower leagues into a pyramid system, and bringing a fresh impetus to the game, then a few junior sides might already be strong and adroit enough to take advantage.

“It was a great advert for junior football,” said Brian McGinty, the Irvine Meadow striker. “There are a lot of good teams – Beith, Auchinleck Talbot, Pollok – and if you look at our league at the moment, we’re not sitting anywhere near the top. That tells you the standard, it’s very good.”

Of course, playing astutely in small, scattered flurries, against a Hibs team that was quite far removed from the shrewdest accomplishment it is capable of, does not carry a lasting significance. This was a game in which Irvine Meadow could perform with a freedom of intent, while their opponents bore the weight of expectation, but there was enough value in the nimble touches of McGinty, the former Rangers and St Mirren forward, Richie Barr’s surging runs and the determination of the two wide players, Chris Strain and David Hamilton, to tell of a certain fundamental standard of ability.

“There are a lot of boys playing junior football because they want to, with travelling and work reasons,” added McGinty. “There are players at our level who could step up, but whether or not they would want to is another question. The league we play in is local, predominately Ayrshire and Glasgow teams. If you go into the third division you’re going up to Peterhead, Elgin, all over the place.”

For most junior clubs, the cost of meeting SFL requirements for an infrastructure of youth football, medical facilities and other membership criteria, is prohibitive. Most are able to survive as they are through local sponsorship deals, gate receipts and the proceeds of the social club. But then ambition, at least of the imagination, does not carry a cost and if the lower reaches of senior football were to be reorganised along geographical lines, it would be less disruptive.

“Whether the SFA want juniors to come in I don’t know,” said Chris Strain, the Meadow manager. “As a club, we would be prepared to if it was regionalised. It’s something the SFA should look at, because we could move ahead that way. Junior football will look at [this performance] and say, ‘if they can do it, we can do it’. There are four or five good clubs in our division.”

If Barr had earned a penalty rather than a booking for diving when he fell too readily under the challenge of Graeme Smith, the Hibs goalkeeper, Irvine Meadow might even have established a lead. McGinty also hit the post with an artful curling effort from the edge of the penalty area soon after Hibs had opened the scoring through an Alexander Ryan own goal.

But once Merouane Zemmama struck a second just before half-time – with a shot of glib ferocity after good work by Anthony Stokes – the outcome of this fourth round tie was assured. Irvine Meadow continued to assert pockets of intrepidness after the interval, but this was their first competitive match in five weeks and tiredness began to tell.

Paul Hanlon, the Hibs left-back, added a third when he scampered into the penalty area before clipping a shot beyond Michael Wardrope, and there was still time for Stokes to hit the post with a deft shot from 18 yards out.

As the Irvine Meadow players took the acclaim of their fans at the end, John Hughes, the Hibs manager stood at the side of the pitch wearing a look of grim absorption as he waited to shake the hands of the officials. This, after all, was a game that offered little glory for his side, only the relief of avoiding a kind of calamity.

“Let’s give them all the credit,” Hughes said. “We were on a hiding to nothing and we accept that. I played in the juniors myself, for three or four years at Newtongrange Star, and I know what it takes to play there. They made a right good game of it. I’m a great believer in the pyramid system, if you’ve got the resources, the finances and the infrastructure in place. If [clubs] want to try to get to the highest [level] they can, I don’t see why we should stop it.”