THIS has so far been a season of few highlights for Hearts, but they have reserved two of their most impressive performances for arguably their two biggest games to date – the derby matches against Hibernian.
In the first, at Tynecastle on the second weekend of the league season, they won 1-0 thanks to a late Callum Paterson header. In the second, the quarter-final of the League Cup at Easter Road, they won by the same score through a first-half strike by Ryan Stevenson.
Hibs had been strong favourites to win both games, and their failure to win either had a big impact on them. The loss in the league piled pressure on then manager Pat Fenlon, and the League Cup defeat turned out to be his last match in charge.
With the Tynecastle club now on minus two after Sunday’s draw at St Mirren, there is an obvious incentive for them as they look ahead to tomorrow night’s match against their city rivals: beat Hibs, and they reach a positive points total at last. “I think it would be a big boost for us,” Hearts captain Danny Wilson said.
“We had been on minus three for a while. You kept seeing it when you go home after a Saturday. It’s still minus three, still minus three. So it would be nice after the game on 2 January that we were finally on a positive points total. We’ve put on good performances in those games even when we’ve not had a lot of the ball. Especially at Easter Road – but we still came away with the victory and that was important for us.
“It would be great to get three points and kickstart our season. We’ve been on a bad run of games until getting a point against St Mirren and it would be great to turn it around.
“It’s a game for us all to look forward to. We go into it having won the previous two. That doesn’t mean anything going into this one, but it’s the first derby of the new year and everyone is looking forward to it.
“I know Terry Butcher’s teams at Inverness were hard to play against and I’m sure Hibs will be no different. They will be set up for it, but so will we. The last time we never played as well but we won it and, on the day, it could come down to that again.”
The defender knows it could also come down to a couple of key performers, as it did last time at Easter Road, when goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald kept Hibs at bay for the first half-hour before Stevenson’s goal turned the tie on its head. The scorer, who returned to the side for Sunday’s draw with St Mirren after a spell out with a hamstring injury, has frequently reminded his team-mates of that goal, as Wilson suggested in a joking reference.
“He seems to like that wee hero act that he’s got going on,” he said. “But he makes a big difference to our team. He didn’t train a lot [before the St Mirren game], but he got through the 90 minutes and the boys were delighted to have him back because he is a big presence and a big character in our dressing room.
“Last time we were there he wasn’t expected to play but he did, he scored the winner and he had a great game. He’s a massive player and we miss him when he’s not available.
“It’s the same for Jamie. He was excellent in that last derby – but he’s been excellent all season. Even if you look at the defeats we’ve had recently, you couldn’t point the finger at him for any mistakes. He’s just been over-exposed. We need to protect him better, but hopefully it will be another great game from Jamie at Easter Road.”
Hearts have not thrived in adversity too often this season, but Wilson’s reputation for leadership has been enhanced, and he remains quietly confident about his team’s chances tomorrow night.
He knows that Hearts’ poor run of recent form, plus the significant improvements made by Butcher and Maurice Malpas since their arrival at Hibs, mean that the home team will be favourites. But, far from being perturbed by the underdog label being attached to his team, he suggested it could actually work in their favour.
“That maybe suits us. We won’t be expected to open up, so we can maybe sit in and hit them on the counter-attack. But we don’t think too much about the underdog. It’s a derby and we are Hearts – so we expect to win.”