ALL those old jokes about Hibs/Hearts trophy rooms are going to have to be revised now that this Festival Cup has been introduced to the sporting calendar. As of 4.45pm yesterday, Hearts fans could heave a sigh of relief. No matter what happens from here on in, the history books will show that at least one piece of silverware was housed at Tynecastle in season 2003/04, even if Craig Levein’s suggestion of an open-top bus along Princes Street was only tongue-in-cheek.
Truth be told, few inside the ground cared about the shiny cup, which is just as well as police hadn’t allowed it to be presented on the pitch after the match. It meant nothing compared to the bragging rights victory afforded the winners, and for the players and management it was the chance to give themselves the psychological edge two weeks before the first league meeting between the pair at the same venue.
With the first ‘real’ meeting between the capital rivals so early in the season, and ticket prices considered too steep for a supposedly-meaningless fixture, only 10,000 turned out to watch, but those who did turn out were reminded that there is no such thing as a meaningless derby.
As far as pre-season friendlies go, this was certainly one of the more competitive. The longer the match went on the less likely it seemed that it would be able to hang on to such an idealistic tag, so fullsome was the effort, so full-bloodied some of the tackles and so choice some of the verbal exchanges.
In fact, by the time Austin McCann and Tam McManus started rolling around on the ground together, in the 80th minute, trading blows, any uninitiated tourists must have been wondering if it was some alternative Fringe show rather than a football match. Especially as referee Tom Brown was the only man in the stadium who had remembered the match was non-competitive and allowed the chastised pair to dust themselves down after being hauled apart and re-enter the fray with just a yellow card to their names. It was the fans and players who appeared to have forgotten that no league points were at stake. No-one wanted to lose this.
Hibs had gone into the match still chasing their first derby win under Bobby Williamson and, fielding a starting 11 much closer to full strength than many had predicted, it seemed it wouldn’t have mattered if it had finally come in a pre-season tussle, but Hearts were in no mood to surrender their superiority. A 17th-minute goal from Andy Webster gave them the lead, and although they will get maximum praise for effort they were still unable to break back. Hearts controlled the remainder of that half and with the second half diminished by the mish-mash of substitutions, the chances of Hibs gaining the rhythm and cohesion needed to craft a goal looked slim.
If the closing minutes were meaty and bad-tempered, the opening exchanges had been more pleasant if no less intense. "Players banging their heads together," was how the matchwinner described it, and it was pretty apt. With play fairly evenly spread between both ends of the pitch, rendering negativity a no-show and serving up enthralling and entertaining action, the first chance of the match fell to the home side, who were obviously desperate to erase the memories of the previous season with an early morale-booster.
Jarkko Wiss’ corner fell to Stephen Dobbie at the back post in the second minute, but his volley was into the ground and bounced up for Tepi Moilanen, in goal for the opening 45 minutes, to take easily. But in true derby style, all "passion and commitment" according to Webster, the next chance feel to Hearts as Andy Kirk burst in on goal and blasted his shot from just outside the box, which Morten Hyldgaard had to palm over. At the other end, Hibs again pressurised and it was a measure of Hearts defensive tenacity on the day that it was striker Mark de Vries who was on hand to make two clearing headers before play raged back downfield and Kirk attempted an overhead kick which was parried by Hyldgaard and cleared.
Hearts had started the match without a number of injured first-team men, including Phil Stamp, Alan Maybury, Paul Hartley, Jean-Louis Valois and Gary Wales, and the fact they coped so well underlines their SPL credentials, even accounting for the fact they hope to be following Celtic’s UEFA Cup lead and fighting on several fronts throughout the season. But manager Craig Levein was still cautious. "What can look pretty and look good at this stage can be like a parcel you open and there’s nothing in it," he said. There’s no substance until the season starts."
But it will offer the fans and the players some confidence going into the new campaign, especially as they restricted the opportunities Hibs had in front of goal. Hearts captain Steven Pressley actually had one of the few chances on the Hearts goal, his diving clearing header blazing goalwards until Moilanen pulled off the stop. That was the first half though, and while the second half was just as captivating, it was for different reasons as the temperature in the stadium shot up and tempers were ignited.
McManus claimed that he had already kissed and made up with McCann, but that was just one incident and when they face up again in two weeks’ time it’s unlikely to have all been forgotten. De Vries gave the home fans a jolly wave as they exited the ground the second the whistle sounded. Hang around to watch their rivals celebrate? This was football of the pre-season, not fantasy, variety.