Anthony Brown: It’s not quite May 19, but cup derby will define this season
Here we go again. Less than seven months after Craig Beattie’s penalty winner for Hearts against Celtic sparked the most frenzied build-up to a match in the history of Edinburgh football, we have another mouth-watering Scottish Cup encounter between the two Capital clubs to count down to.
Given that this is the fourth time in eight seasons Hearts and Hibs have been paired together in the country’s showpiece knockout tournament, you’d think the novelty might have worn off by now. Not a bit of it, it seems. The city of Edinburgh is very much abuzz with derby fever again after these two old foes were pulled out the hat together.
Granted, this match doesn’t carry anywhere near the clout of last season’s Scottish Cup final in terms of what it means to the two respective teams.
In the eyes of the Hearts supporters, it is unlikely that anything can eclipse or avenge the day their rampant team fired five past their hapless city rivals, while, for everyone connected with Hibs, the emotional scars of May 19 are likely to remain until the day they eventually get their hands on the Holy Grail. If they ever do, of course.
Nonetheless, given the way the two teams have started the current season, next month’s Easter Road showdown is massive in its own right.
Had Hibs still been gripped by the malaise of the previous two season, then yesterday’s draw would simply have served to ensure another month of wincing in fear for their supporters, while their rivals licked their chops at the prospect of a smooth passage into the fifth round.
As it is, both sets of supporters and players are positively salivating over what they hope will unfold on the first weekend of December. And both with good reason.
Of the two sides, Hibs, for the first time in three years, are very much the form team, and, having gone unbeaten at Easter Road so far this season, the SPL’s joint leaders are well within their rights to be quietly confident. Assuming, of course, Leigh Griffiths, their feisty talisman, remains fit and firing.
However, while Hearts will be respectful of their old foes’ significant upturn, they certainly won’t be fazed upon running out at what should hopefully be one of the bigger crowds the new-look Easter Road will have hosted. John McGlynn’s men will arrive in Leith buoyed by a 12-game unbeaten run against Hibs – a period of derby dominance that spans over three and a half years. They will also be aiming to make it five successive Scottish Cup victories against their great rivals, a run which stretches back to 1994, when Wayne Foster scored his famous late winner at Easter Road.
The Jambos, of course, are struggling badly in the league, but they still have a penchant for raising their game in the bigger matches, as evidenced by excellent performances in the two Europa League meetings with Liverpool, as well as a fine display at Tannadice in the League Cup last week.
Even if Hearts were to find some consistency in the league, though, it is still likely that Hibs will be sitting above them in the league, a status the Easter Road men haven’t enjoyed going into a derby for over two-and-a-half years. Next month’s tie, however, is very much the acid test of Hibs’ remarkable revival.
Their fine run of form this season has provided a much-needed lift for their fans, but to fully start growing as a club again, they need to shed their inferiority complex when it comes to the derbies.
If they were to knock Hearts out of the Scottish Cup, while heading them in the SPL, it would represent something of a power-shift in the city, one which couldn’t have been envisaged by many people as recently as six months ago. By contrast, however, defeat to Hearts would re-open old wounds and inflict significant damage on the recovery process.
For Hearts, there is a sense that this tie could make or break their season.
They are meandering aimlessly through their league campaign and thus far haven’t really looked like stringing a run together. The two cup competitions seem their likeliest routes to satisfaction this term, and they will be desperate to ensure they are still in with a sniff of winning both going into the new year.
This scenario would certainly help soften the blow if an improvement in league form is not forthcoming, especially if their fans can tuck into their Christmas dinner knowing they have already killed off Hibs’ hopes of banishing their Scottish Cup hoodoo for another year.
Defeat at Easter Road, however, could see a real sense of gloom envelope Hearts’ season.
It might not carry the bragging rights or kudos of the Scottish Cup final, but, with so much resting on it for both sides, the next Edinburgh derby looks to be one of the most pivotal in recent seasons.
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