KEVIN McHattie does not particularly wish ill on Hibernian, although he is one of those Hearts players who were delighted when the Easter Road side joined them in the Championship this season.
For one thing, it means the left-back can continue his running battle with Alex Harris, the Hibs winger who, although a year younger, has been a regular opponent in recent years. Depending on the personnel choices made by Robbie Neilson and Alan Stubbs, head coach and manager respectively of Hearts and Hibs, then McHattie and Harris could lock horns again tomorrow afternoon at Tynecastle. It is the first lower division Edinburgh derby. Despite this, the fixture still threatens Celtic v Dundee United as being considered the game of the weekend.
“It’s great,” said McHattie, with reference to the fact that the Edinburgh derby will continue to enthral supporters, despite its new, lowlier status. “We get to have the buzz of the derby games again, which everyone loves.” It will be particularly interesting to see how players like McHattie and Harris, who turns 20 later this month, handle the occasion. Although young, they both know what to expect from the fixture, and, perhaps, from each other.
“As young guys we came through the under 19s and 20s and played against each other,” McHattie recalled yesterday. “I always enjoy playing against him but I’ll expect a hard afternoon. Hopefully, we will be able to cope. We are rivals but I am pleased for him. He has a big future ahead of him. He’s a good player, he’s very direct and he whips balls in. He’s a full-back’s worst nightmare.”
“It was usually Hearts who got the better of the derbies in the youth ranks over the years. Hopefully that will continue,” McHattie added.
Hearts certainly got the better of Hibs last season. Indeed, three league defeats against their rivals contributed to the situation where the Easter Road side had to win against Kilmarnock in their last Premiership fixture to avoid being involved in a play-off. They failed in this mission, and then failed in their attempt to overcome Hamilton Accies, despite securing a first-leg victory.
Just as dismaying for the Hibs supporters was a record of four defeats in five meetings against Hearts, who were supposed to be operating at a reduced level due to their financial circumstances. Youngsters like McHattie were given little choice but to get on with things as Hearts sought to overcome the restrictions placed on them by a signing embargo. Hibs, meanwhile, suffered as Pat Fenlon was sacked in October and his replacement, Terry Butcher, proved unable to inspire an upward swing in fortunes. Instead, their form simply got worse.
“Hibs were obviously going through a hard time, while we had young players who were on the up and getting experience of playing week in, week out,” recalled McHattie. “It helped make us better players.”
“We did well in the derbies last season. Hopefully, that can continue in the upcoming ones. It’s great to play in these games, but you always have to be careful in derbies, especially in the first one. You can’t allow yourselves to get any silly bookings or red cards.”
Hearts managed to avoid this against Rangers at Ibrox last weekend in what proved a high-octane start to the league season, with the visitors scoring a winner in injury-time. “The Rangers game showed what the boys are capable of,” said McHattie. “The new lads have come in and gelled very well. We have set the benchmark now. We want to get promoted. That’s what every fan wants and we believe we can do it.”
This aim is made more complicated by the presence of Hibs, as well as Rangers. But McHattie is delighted to have them for company. “I am glad they are here with us,” he said. “We will have another four or five derbies this season which is great for the club and the fans. They will be a rival this season, along with Rangers. They have a new gaffer who has come in and made a lot of changes.
“It is the same here. The gaffer has told us what he wants and it’s been great so far.”