IT IS early days and the following words could be viewed as premature but, already in the battle between the Edinburgh clubs to get back to football’s top flight, one of them has put down a marker and the other is playing catch-up.
The marker is this – Hearts have attitude, Hibernian, on the other hand, don’t have quite so much of it. By the end of the season, this may not be the difference between the teams. There is a long way to go and some other factor could well come into the equation and be decisive. Between now and next April there is plenty of time for Hibs to acquire attitude in any case.
But on Sunday at Tynecastle Hearts had a player in Sam Nicholson who looked that bit more likely – compared with Alex Harris or Sam Stanton or Danny Handling – to do what he did in the 76th minute – burst into dynamic action in the middle of the park, nutmeg an opponent and unleash a left-foot thunderbolt. Ensuring it was even more aesthetically pleasing, Nicholson’s shot went in off a post. It was easily the best derby goal since Derek Riordan quit this fixture.
Afterwards, Nicholson said he could not remember much about the goal but still exuded a certain cockiness. It is in his hairstyle and, on Sunday, it was in his game. Others in the Hearts team have it too. Jason Holt, Kevin McHattie – they are all little tough nuts who can play a bit.
The swagger displayed by these Hearts kids reminds me of the Riordan generation at Hibs. They know they are good and they want to show it.
Harris, Stanton and Handling can all play a bit for sure but are less gallus.
Harris went to Edinburgh Academy while Stanton is the son of my literary agent. Handling may sport a tattoo but I would be surprised if the other two do. Stanton even wears black boots, for goodness sake.
But Hibs did not lose this derby because they were too middle class. Harris of this trio still managed to make a bright contribution and the team as a whole had their moments. An extremely tight game could have gone either way and might have gone Hibs’ way if Liam Craig had scored with his penalty.
Everything about his attempt was wrong. Craig’s run-up was too long for a placed strike. If you are going to not look at the ball, you are assuming perfect contact and Craig did not achieve this. The miss was pretty crucial to Hibs chances and not much good for the player either. Craig’s game wobbled after that and, anxious to make amends, there was some playing to the gallery about his lunges, falls and protests.
Alongside him Scott Robertson was fairly ragged and, of the experienced men in the middle of the park, Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis produced the more controlled performances.
A lot has been written about the first lower-tier derby being much like others in recent times, with a typical outcome and the continuation of Hearts’ Indian sign over their city rivals. But the new managers – and eight derby debutants on the pitch – brought fresh intrigue to this one and I did not think it was as poor a game of football as some have suggested.
A factor in Hearts winning it seemed to be their readiness. They are slightly ahead of Hibs in the revival stakes. From a long way back last season, Hearts knew relegation was coming. But, when it happened, it did not altogether feel like demotion. Clever PR? Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs in the build-up to Sunday reminded us that two teams had dropped down. Hearts, though, changed their manager quicker, having already got themselves a new owner.
There were plucky performances in the run-in, including two wins over Hibs, who simply did not see relegation coming.
While the young Hearts players retained by Robbie Neilson went off on holiday with praise ringing in their ears for a brave showing during a trying season, Hibs at their demise were left shattered, taking their leave of Easter Road to a chorus of angry jeers, although many of those were directed at Rod Petrie. The chairman is still in place, more back seat now, but the grumbles remain. Stubbs had to prepare for his first derby while take-over wrangles – which ultimately came to nothing – went on around him.
It is to Stubbs’ credit that, in a short space of time, he has managed to lift the mood of players and fans and bring the ball back down to earth after all those desperate cloudbursting clearances in the fatal play-off against Hamilton Accies.
It is to Neilson’s credit that Hearts have made such a great start in the Championship, beating their closest rivals in successive weeks.
Both men have acquitted themselves well on and off the park. Both, by sticking by the kids, are trying to build something. This rivalry will be worth watching.
Post-Sunday, no-one was saying Hearts had won anything more than three points, or that Hibs had lost anything greater. Setbacks will come and, indeed, suspensions have come for both teams right away.
The trick for Hearts, said Neilson, would be to win again at Stark’s Park, far from the hype, history and hullabaloo of a game against, and the chance to beat, their internecine nearest-and-dearest. But Hibs would be strong challengers, he said. They had good players and he fully expected Stubbs to bring in a few more.
He didn’t say anything about them importing some attitude, and it is now up to Hibs to prove this is not exclusive to Gorgie.