IF YOU were to listen to the managers of the two clubs involved, tomorrow’s Edinburgh derby might sound like little more than the footballing equivalent of a Sunday stroll.
Something to stretch the legs of the players and engage the attention of the spectators for a couple of hours, but of no lasting significance.
Both Gary Locke and Terry Butcher have assiduously downplayed the importance of the game, and for similar reasons. As a lifelong supporter of Hearts, Locke is loath to contemplate the possibility of his club being relegated by arch-rivals Hibernian. As a man in charge of a team whose self-belief has become dangerously brittle in the wake of a run of poor results, Butcher wants to minimise the pressure on his players for this one.
Yet the reality is that this game could become one of the most memorable in the history of a fixture that is now nearly 140 years old. If Hearts’ relegation, so long on the cards, is finally confirmed by its outcome, this game will become one of the most celebrated by Hibs fans who have had precious little to cheer about recently, and one that supporters of the Tynecastle club will be eager to forget.
It may not come to this, of course. If St Mirren lose in Inverness today, nothing can be confirmed tomorrow, and Hearts’ next “chance” to go down will move to Wednesday, when they are at home to Aberdeen.
But if St Mirren get a point, that will mean Hearts cannot afford to lose. And if Danny Lennon’s team win in the Highlands, Hearts will need to pick up all three points tomorrow.
Locke may insist that his team are going down because of the 15-point deduction and the signing ban they had imposed on them as a punishment for going into administration, and that relegation is a consequence of results over the season, not of a single game. Nonetheless, the reality is that one result always delivers the coup de grace. And a loss to Hibs is the last result that Locke would want to confirm his team’s consignment to the Championship.
If it turns out that Hearts do not need a win, all the pressure will then be on Hibs. With 37 points in the bag, they may only need one more win to ensure they steer clear of the play-offs, but a third loss of the season to their rivals would further deplete their already meagre reserves of confidence.
Hence the reason, perhaps, that Butcher is keen to get his squad focusing purely on their own performance rather than being distracted by other issues. “We haven’t even talked about the relegation factor,” he insisted yesterday. “The fans have said it, we’ve dismissed it, because we’ve got to treat the game on its own merits, 90 minutes to get stuck in.
“I went to a supporters’ association thing last week – and all the talk was about Hearts going down, about us relegating them. As players, as a club, we can’t get involved in that. The result will have a significance, whether it means relegation or not. We’re just chasing the three points and we’ll let the situation take care of itself.”
But as well as downplaying tomorrow’s match, Butcher was keen to talk up the significance of the Edinburgh derby as a whole. He has only been in charge of Hibs for one so far – their 2-1 home win in January, when Liam Craig settled the outcome with a late penalty, but he was impressed by what he saw, to the extent of likening it favourably to the Old Firm match in which he played during his days with Rangers. “It’s so similar because of the intensity,” he continued. “The noise of the fans – it’s just surreal.
“If you step back and look at it, you would say: ‘Wow, what are these fans on? What are they drinking or eating before the game?’ It’s like ‘Woo-hoo!’
“That’s how much it means to them, this game. Because of that, you’ve got to have 11 players who will go out there and play for your team – and who will disregard what is going on around the edges, just concentrate on the match.
“I enjoyed the derby experience because it was like an Old Firm game. Having been part of that as a player, it was a throwback to those days.
“So, having experienced it, it was nice. If you haven’t experienced anything like it, haven’t been through an Old Firm game or something similar, it can blow your mind away. It’s not quite like the Caley Thistle-Ross County derby, put it that way.
“Hearts will be keyed up. You see Hearts play in other Premiership matches, then you see them play us on 2 January and you’d think it was a different team. They were really fired up.
“They obviously want to beat Hibs; we want to beat them. But we’ve got to have a focus on the game – play the game and not the whole fantastic occasion that surrounds it.
“And it is fantastic, this game. They’re unique. I’ve only experienced one from a Hibs perspective, we won it, and it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had as a manager. I want this one to be the second best game of my managerial career – if not the best.”
The initial pattern of the game will be determined by St Mirren’s result today and what it means for Hearts. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Neither team is strong enough to dictate proceedings throughout the 90 minutes, so the outcome should be decided by individual moments of brilliance – or befuddlement.
l Hearts will wear black armbands in tomorrow’s game to mark the recent death of Steven Slater. The 25-year-old, whose body was found near his Musselburgh home last week, joined Hearts in the summer of 2005 and played regularly for the under-19s before leaving in 2008.