LOOK back through the press cuttings and the reports are pretty disparaging.
“Derbies are not a day for silky football but if the day ever dawns where they are, I hope someone tells us because it would be awful to miss it” and “There have been some classics between the two Edinburgh sides but the numbers of those who can remember them are dwindling.”
Then there are the lines about spectators nodding off and yawning gaps in the crowd, where a header sent wide causes the greatest stir in a mind-numbing 90 minutes.
That was back in season 1992/93, the last time the capital derbies presented so few goals in one campaign and, arguably, the last time they produced so many games devoid of class and lacking excitement as those witnessed this term. No, not witnessed, endured.
Hearts and Hibs meet again today at Tynecastle for one final time this season.
“Who knows, maybe a bit of football will break out in this one,” says current Hibs manager Pat Fenlon. “There hasn’t been much played in the others.”
“The derbies so far haven’t been great spectacles,” agrees his Hearts counterpart, Gary Locke, “but hopefully this one will be a bit better in terms of football.”
We can only pray. In the absence of an Old Firm clash this season, the stage was left vacant for the capital duo to showcase their own derby, their own passion and fire, their ability to perform under pressure and entertain. Thus far, they have failed to deliver. More goals would help break the monotony, of course, but they have been few and far between. In fact, there have been just three in four games, with two goalless encounters, one 1-1 draw and the 1-0 Scottish Cup win for Hibs.
In the 1992/93 season the teams conjured up a pitiful two goals in four games. Yet in the intervening years some seasons have been awash with goals and drama. There have been years such as 2002/03 where they engineered a dazzling tally of 17 goals in just three fixtures, while last term the four derbies produced 14.
“The lack of goals, certainly in relation to us not conceding many, has been deliberate,” admits Fenlon, for whom this season’s stalemates have been far more palatable than last season’s Scottish Cup final, where his side caved in, conceding five and scoring just one, leaving him harbouring enough embarrassment, anger and frustration to last him a lifetime. “That is something we had to stop and we will try to continue that pattern. Perhaps we also have to be a bit more adventurous going forward, but you can’t remedy everything at the same time.
“There has not been a lot between the teams, but I said at the start of the season that we had to make the games more competitive than they have been in the past few seasons. We have definitely done that this season. Now we need to do that over a period of time… we rolled over too easily at times last year – maybe before that as well – so step one is done, now we aim to keep improving.”
But while it may not have been glamorous or even that enthralling, when it comes to their aim of stemming the flow of Hearts’ domination, Hibs have been successful. Prior to this term, the Gorgie side had gone three seasons unbeaten on derby duty, rattling in 22 goals. Hibs had notched up less than a third of that tally.
Yet a draw or victory at Tynecastle today will see Hibs end this season unbeaten by their city nemeses for the first time in four years. It would also see them move back ahead of Hearts in the table, with a game in hand. But those league standings offer an incentive to both sides. As well as bragging rights, there is the cash benefits, with an extra £80,000 on offer as they move up each rung of the league ladder.
“We’ve got a lot at stake, trying to get up the table to the highest points we can,” says Hearts defender Jamie Hamill, who, having missed the previous four head-to-heads through injury will become at least the 21st different starter for Hearts in derbies in what has been a transitional season.
“Every team outwith Celtic is trying to make that extra place and extra cash,” adds Hamill. “It’s a lot of money for any club in the current climate. It’s hard to get players in on tight budgets so hopefully the last two games, we can get up there and try to give the gaffer a chance of bringing in two extra bodies at the end of the season.”
With so many derby rookies, he says the quest for success has been tougher but with Hibs concentrating on becoming harder to beat, Hearts’ kids have to learn how to win battles within football matches.
“I don’t think any player in our dressing room would ever say they’re happy to be in the bottom six,” says Hamill. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got kids in the team or not, no-one would accept our position.”
It is unusual to find this fixture languishing in the bottom half of the table. Since the split was introduced at least one or other of the clubs have made the cut. The one bonus in the minds of their supporters from their teams’ inability to finish amongst the elite is the provision of another derby.
“I don’t think it is any less meaningful,” says Hamill. “I think derby matches are about supporters and what makes the occasion special is the atmosphere they generate. As players and managers it is about winning the match and picking up three points. Then you know the supporters will enjoy their night. But nothing changes in that regard depending on where they are played or what end of the table they are played.”
Re-reading reports from that 1992/93 season, even the supporters’ interest had waned. There were swathes of empty seats and the atmosphere was described as crypt-like. In that sense this year differs significantly. There have been too many proverbial sticks with which the rivals could prod each other for that level of apathy to set in. From goads of 5-1 to Hibs’ loftier standing earlier in the campaign and Hearts’ financial woes, to Hibs’ loss of form in the second half of the campaign, the verbal ammunition has remained plentiful.
Hibs have also made it to the Scottish Cup final again, their ousting of their rivals en route providing the capital derby with its only win this season. Some are hoping that may distract them as they eye up the Hampden curtain call but Locke says that is unlikely.
“I think derby games are different. I certainly don’t think any Hibs player will be thinking about the cup final come Sunday. Like us they will be desperate to win the game and it has the makings of a good game.”
The last time Hibs won at Tynecastle was 2009 and they would probably settle for another stalemate today but the fixture desperately needs a winner, desperately needs drama and someone to deliver goals.
“It is the kind of ground that you like as a player or a manager,” says Fenlon. “Particularly as a player, I think you embrace that – but only if you have the balls to go and play there. That is what you need.”
With so little between the teams all season, that’s what it’s likely to come down to.