They couldn’t say goodbye. They missed each other too much. So, like OAPs after being forced to move from their homes because they could no longer cope with the stairs and lower-level living was required, Hearts and Hibernian were yesterday reunited like old sweethearts in the eventide residence known as the Championship.
The first second-tier derby, ever. A historic one, for sure, but not one to be really shouting about. Would it look/feel/play any different? It certainly sounded different with not a peep from either set of fans ten minutes before kick-off. DJ Jambo played Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood but no-one seemed in the mood for a war. Fiery characters from the recent past – Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson, Kevin Thomson, James McPake – had left the scene. The new managers are soft-spoken, considered souls who like to talk about their passing games. And so the match started meekly with the snell Gorgie wind by far the dominant feature.
By the end there would be two red cards and strong rumours of a third dished out in the tunnel which were later quashed. There would be square-ups on the pitch and invitations to settle differences on Gorgie Road. Angry words and jabbing fingers. Talk of a headbutt. Hearts, the victors, waited behind to let the disappointed Hibees leave the field on their own, just in case. These old buffers aren’t past it. They can still give us derby tumult. Truth be told, the re-cast teams are full of vibrant youth now. Robbie Neilson and Alan Stubbs quite clearly believe in kids. Take Hibs’ Alex Harris. A lost, timid soul by the traumatic end of last season, he has rediscovered some of the sparkle that made him such an exciting prospect the campaign before, not least on this ground.
Hibs fans will have wanted him to take on his man and be even more fizzy than he was yesterday, in the manner of Sam Nicholson, another likely lad. Always the most effervescent of Hearts’ forward players for the first 75 minutes – although Hibs had defended pretty well until that point – he finally found some space in the 76th when he nutmegged Scott Robertson 25 yards out to break the deadlock with a left-foot whizzbanger.
Afterwards, looking all of 13 in his tracksuit, Nicholson said he couldn’t remember anything about it. But the smile on his pimply face, plus the bottle of champagne in his hand which would surely have his age questioned by the Gorgie Polis were he to have flourished it outside the stadium, confirmed that the goal had very definitely happened.
For those 75 minutes it wasn’t too obvious where a goal was going to come from. In the first half, Mark Oxley in the Hibs goal had only one save to make, a decent one down low from, almost inevitably, Nicholson. Hibs didn’t test Jack Hamilton, officially Hearts’ No 3 goalie, in that period and not even when they were awarded a penalty, Liam Craig squirting his spot-kick wide of a post.
Craig, the captain, and Michael Nelson bore their share of blame last season as seasoned pros. Much of the fan frustration was directed at them. But they have decided to try again to endear themselves. Nelson, in his first start of the season, had to cope with the tricky, telescopically-limbed Osman Sow while releasing the ball carefully, preferably along the ground, as directed by Stubbs. He made a decent job of this and Craig was doing all right too until his penalty miss. There was a chance to win back some affection and he blew it.
As well as some relegation-battered old faces, there were plenty of new ones on show. David Gray looked a busy, committed acquisition at right-back for Hibs while Hearts seemed to have unearthed a real character in Alim Ozturk. Possibly he is a better player in his own head, but more power to him for attempting to caress his studs across the ball from a centre-back position. Maybe, though, he shouldn’t try it on a Stark’s Park gluepot in November.
This wasn’t a classic game by any means but it was never less than interesting, given the Edinburgh teams’ new position in the world and the fact two more brave men are embarking on what they hope will be long and fruitful careers in football management. Quite often – more often than in some recent derbies – players tried to tether the breezeful ball and do something creative with it.
Prince Buaben was prominent during these moments for Hearts while Hibs’ Danny Handling tried to angle some clever runs. Meanwhile, Stubbs in a suit and Neilson in what was possibly one of Steven Pressley’s hand-me-down donkey jackets were composed figures as they sipped water and tasted their first derby experiences from the touchline.
The fans eventually rediscovered their voices, without ever reaching the screaming heights of the last time we all gathered here, the so-called Black Sabbath derby which was supposed to condemn Hearts to their fate but only served to begin Hibs’ slide to doom. “Two-nil and you f****d it up,” sang the Jambos, a reference to their rivals crazily contriving defeat in the relegation play-off. “Shoot, shoot, shoot!” urged the away-end every time Oxley wound up for a kick-out, the ’keeper having scored from one the previous week.
Then, midway through the second-half, rumbustious chanting broke out right round the ground. Ah the derby, the capital rivals seemed to be saying, thank goodness we’ve still got it and it still means something, no matter we’re in the Championship now. No need to revive the Festival Cup or the Tom Hart Memorial Trophy. The fans’ racket seemed to inspire the players and so we got that explosive finale, banishing any more thoughts of codgerdom.