CAN Edinburgh football really have turned on its head in the space of six months? A quick look at the league table might suggest so, but tomorrow’s game at Easter Road should offer a more credible answer.
There is no disputing the fact that Hibernian’s fortunes have improved considerably since last season, if their own form is the yardstick. But whether that means they can get the better of Hearts remains to be seen.
The home team in the William Hill Scottish Cup fourth-round tie lie second in the SPL just a point behind Celtic, their flirtation with relegation a thing of the past. Hearts, a lowly ninth, have struggled to find goals, and have been shorn of the glamour which was in their side when they won the cup final 5-1 on 19 May.
But league form has never been a wholly reliable guide to behaviour in cup ties, and the derby has a narrative of its own which tends to take over. If you want a form guide, the fact that the cup holders are on a 12-game unbeaten run in the fixture must surely be given some weight.
It is a run which reaches back three and a half years, to an evening at Tynecastle when Derek Riordan scored the only goal of a league game from the penalty spot. Those dozen matches equal Hibs’ best run ever, but are only Hearts’ third longest sequence, behind the 17 in a row from 1983 to 1987 and 22 in a row from 1989 to 1994.
That history weighs heavily on Hibs, as of course does an even longer run – the 111 years which have elapsed since they last won the Scottish Cup. Hearts manager John McGlynn, for one, believes that the home side could again display a certain nervousness as a result.
“As Scottish Cup holders we want to keep a hold of the trophy and that gives us more motivation,” he said yesterday. “The pressure is possibly on Hibs as it’s a good few years since they’ve won it, and we’ve won it twice fairly recently and three times in a slightly longer period of time.
“We’ll tell our players to try and make it another year that Hibs can’t win it, because that’s what local rivalry and banter is all about. It’s always nice to have one up on them and that’s how it would be if the roles were reversed as well.
“If you’ve won a cup then I think it’s an advantage to you because it gives you that extra confidence and belief. It’s good to have in you as a person, knowing you’ve actually done it and won it.”
Still the manager of Raith Rovers at the time, McGlynn was at Hampden on 19 May along with more than 20,000 other Hearts supporters. Both his team and the losers have changed a lot since that day, but it has been argued that a couple of constant elements hold the key to this game: the Hearts central defence of Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas, and Hibs’ talismanic striker Leigh Griffiths.
McGlynn, however, has warned his players not to presume that if they muzzle Griffiths their task will be complete. “Leigh Griffiths has scored an awful lot of goals, so if you can stop that happening then there’s a fair chance you can win. But it would be unfair to say they’re a one-man team,” said McGlynn.
“The ball’s got to get to Griffiths and at the same time he won’t stop the ball going in at the other end. Hibs seem to be doing both fairly well because they’re getting results.
“Hibs won in Perth the other night and Griffiths didn’t score and we must remember that. Certainly you can’t hide from the fact he’s got a number of goals, but Paul Cairney and David Wotherspoon are doing well for them.”
McGlynn also acknowledged the fact that Hibs have continued their good form despite three key absentees – full-back Tim Clancy, centre-half and captain James McPake and midfielder Gary Deegan. In the early stages of the season the trio were instrumental in making Hibs far tougher to beat, and their good example appears to have rubbed off on their colleagues.
Hearts have injuries of their own to contend with, including Danny Grainger, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. The full-back has been inundated with messages of support from fans and fellow professionals, among them one from Griffiths.
Even before Grainger was injured against Motherwell last week, the relative lack of resources available to McGlynn was becoming increasingly clear. On Thursday, Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas hinted that, provided the financial picture continued to improve, the club might be able to recruit in January, but yesterday the manager said he thought that most likely to happen only if others left the club first.
“Sergei hasn’t spoken to me about buying players, but I think it’s more of a replacement than an investment. If some players have to go we need to replace them with players who are more economical to the football club.”
Given their financial plight, Hearts would have no complaints if the tie went to a replay, as they would receive more money from television and gate receipts. If they are to win at the first time of asking, they will have to impose themselves physically at both ends, and make particular good use of set pieces, where their superior height could tell.
Hibs will look to Griffiths to keep up the record which has made him the top scorer in the country, although as McGlynn said, Cairney has been enhancing his own reputation as a matchwinner in recent games. As the home team, the onus will be on them to take the game to Hearts, and if they go in front they will be halfway to a place in Monday’s fifth-round draw.
The lack of goals in their team will encourage Hearts to keep it tight – and will also discourage them should they concede the opener. They should be able to snatch a goal from somewhere, meaning the key will be the performance of their back four.
So will those defenders ensure that Hearts’ defence of the cup begins successfully? Or will Hibs break their four-year derby duck and get their fans dreaming of an end to the far longer barren spell in the competition?
The bookmakers cannot separate the teams, and it would be no surprise if more than one game were required for a winner to emerge.