NO disrespect to cliche-mongers, but the form book does not always go out the window in Edinburgh derby matches. Most of the time, the better team wins.
That was certainly the case two seasons ago, when Hearts prevailed over Hibernian four times in four meetings. Last season, Hibs’ modest improvement and their opponents’ slow decline was reflected in the outcome of the five encounters between the teams, with three matches being drawn and the other two being won by the Easter Road team.
Even Hearts’ victories so far this campaign, once in the league and once in the League Cup, should not be seen as uncanny occurrences. Granted, Hibs were well on top for the first half-hour of the cup game, but their frailty was there for all to see the moment Ryan Stevenson scored. Hearts had fewer chances, but were undeniably the mentally stronger team.
So, presuming that tonight’s game at Easter Road also turns out to be susceptible to rational analysis, what should we expect? Hibs are favourites, having become more solid in defence and positive in attack since Terry Butcher took over as manager in the wake of that last derby defeat. But Hearts will be buoyed by Sunday’s draw at St Mirren, which might well have been a win, and by the return from injury of the talismanic Stevenson.
It goes without saying that Butcher’s first Edinburgh derby will provide the truest guide yet to just how much his team have improved over the last couple of months, and, in particular, to how resilient they have become under pressure. They lie seventh at present – the same position in which they finished under Pat Fenlon last season – and were the lowest scorers in the Premiership until they put three past Kilmarnock on Sunday, so there has been no instant transformation. But, after years of chronic ineptitude, they are at least starting to reflect the character of their new boss.
Remember how flaky Hibs could be in defence when Fenlon was in charge? Butcher certainly did, and has made the elimination of that flaw his priority. In their seven matches since the Englishman took over, Hibs have conceded two goals, one in the loss to Celtic, another in the draw with Partick Thistle.
The back four looks far more dependable with Michael Nelson at centre-half, and the selection of Jordon Forster at right-back appears to have solved a problem position which had Fenlon stumped. What is more, the defence has been helping out up front too. It was Nelson and Forster who got the goals at Ross County on Boxing Day, and Paul Hanlon who opened the scoring against Kilmarnock.
The fact that Paul Cairney and Lewis Stevenson got the other goals in Sunday’s 3-0 home win says something else – or rather two things, one good, one bad. Butcher’s encouragement to his midfielders to get up front and not be scared to have a go is paying off. But the strikers, in particular James Collins, need to do more.
Collins scored against Thistle, Danny Handling in the earlier cup game against Ross County. Jason Cummings, promoted after scoring freely for the under-20s, has looked lively but has yet to be on the mark for the first team. The imminent return from injury of Paul Heffernan should partially address the problem but it would be no surprise if Butcher made the position his priority now the transfer window is open.
Hearts may well be encouraged by this failing in their opponents but, if anything, their problem is worse . Not only are they now the lowest scorers in the league, they do not even have an out-and-out striker. Callum Paterson is invariably the most advanced player in maroon, but there are still some at Tynecastle who see right-back as his best position. Or further forward, but still wide right.
If Gary Locke opts for a 4-4-1-1 formation this evening, with Paterson again spearheading the attack, the teenager can be expected to give his all. But a willingness to chase lost causes all night is only admirable to an extent. After a while, a manager has to change course in search of something more effective.
Hearts have won only once in the league this season after going a goal down – against Aberdeen in November, the last time to date they earned three points. And, in recent weeks, they have got into the habit of conceding first, often early in a game and often from set-pieces.
That particular weakness will not have escaped the attention of Hibs, three of whose last five goals have come from corners. If Cairney and Liam Craig get in decent deliveries, Nelson, Forster, Hanlon and Ryan McGivern can all get on the end of them. The Hearts defence will have to raise their game significantly to annul this threat.
If their defence continues to creak and their strike force is again little in evidence, the onus to keep their team in the contest will fall to the Hearts midfield. One positive aspect of the visitors’ likely formation is that they will outnumber Hibs in central areas, while neither Stevenson nor Cairney has the pace has to do real damage down the flanks.
Hibs will go into the top six if they win, while a victory for Hearts will mean they have at last overcome the 15-point deficit with which they began the season. The former outcome is more probable – although it should also be remembered that a Hibs win was widely expected in the last game.
But, whatever the result, there will be a poignant atmosphere at the match, given the recent deaths of two young players associated with the teams, Jamie Skinner and David Paul.
Both clubs have already paid their respects before the start of a match, Hearts with a minute’s applause on Boxing Day, Hibs with a minute’s silence on Sunday. It would be an appropriate tribute tonight, both on the pitch and in the stands, if the joy of football, not the petty enmity which sometimes prevails, were the predominant spirit of the game.
THE PAST 10 NEW YEAR DERBIES
Thursday, 3 January 2013: Hearts 0, Hibs 0: Neither team could break the deadlock in a largely dull affair at Tynecastle.
• Monday, 2 January 2012: Hibs 1, Hearts 3: Ryan McGowan gave the visitors the lead in the 58th minute, but a Marius Zaliukas own goal a minute later had Hibs level. Further strikes by Hearts pair Andy Webster and Rudi Skacel won it.
• Saturday, 1 January 2011: Hearts 1, Hibs 0: A late header by Kevin Kyle five minutes from time won the day for the home side.
• Sunday, 3 January 2010: Hibs 1, Hearts 1: Gordon Smith’s sweet strike had Hearts ahead on the stroke of half-time but Anthony Stokes’ leveller in the 54th minute rescued a point for Hibs.
• Saturday, 3 January 2009: Hearts 0, Hibs 0: Another stalemate at Tynecastle as both clubs had to settle for a point in a low-key encounter.
• Sunday, 2 January 2005: Hibs 1, Hearts 1: Hibs’ derby specialist Derek Riordan gave the Easter Road side a 1-0 lead at the break, but Paul Hartley’s goal ten minutes after half-time gave Hearts a share of the spoils.
• Thursday, 2 January 2003: Hearts 4, Hibs 4: In an enthralling encounter, Hibs led 2-1 at half-time with goals by Derek Townsley and Tam McManus before Steven Pressley’s penalty reduced the deficit. Mark De Vries equalised on 62 minutes, but Craig James’s strike in the final minute appeared to have won it for Hibs. Grant Brebner then made it 4-2 before substitute Graham Weir struck twice in injury time to salvage a dramatic draw for the hosts.
• Thursday, 1 January 1998: Hearts 2, Hibs 2: Stevie Fulton’s brace inside the opening ten minutes had Hearts firmly in the ascendancy but goals by Hibs pair Andy Walker and Pat McGinlay in the second half gave Jim Duffy’s men a point.
• Wednesday, 1 January 1997: Hibs 0, Hearts 4: John Robertson gave Hearts a 1-0 lead at the break. Hibs’ Andy Millen was dismissed before two goals by Jim Hamilton and a lobbed effort by Colin Cameron gave Jim Duffy a nightmare start as Hibs manager.
• Monday, 1 January 1996: Hibs 2, Hearts 1: Neil Pointon gave Hearts the lead but two goals before the interval by Michael O’Neill and then Kevin Harper, won the day for Hibs at Easter Road - exorcising the horror of a 7-0 Ibrox defeat 48 hours earlier.