THE tables have turned big time for Terry Butcher and Gary Locke. Just four weeks ago, Butcher took his Hibernian side to Tynecastle knowing that an away win would relegate Hearts.
Tomorrow, a victory for Locke’s team would deepen the crisis for Hibs, who have been sliding ever closer to the play-off position.
The roles have not been entirely reversed because, unlike last month, nothing final can be decided in this match. But given the fragile state of Hibs’ confidence, defeat in the fifth and final Edinburgh derby of the season could well have demoralising consequences beyond this weekend.
Hearts, by contrast, are in a remarkably buoyant state for a team who know they will be playing in the Championship next season. Their demotion from the top flight was finally confirmed six days after the last derby, but they knew it was coming for some time, and so have not allowed themselves to be depressed by it.
What is more, unlike most other teams when their final position for the season has been determined, the already-relegated Tynecastle club still have a very tangible target to play for. Putting aside the 15-point deduction with which they began the season as a punishment for going into administration, they want to finish above as many of their bottom-six rivals as possible.
As things stand, they would now be level on points with second-bottom Ross County. If they win tomorrow, they would be level with Hibs – a remarkable achievement for such a small and inexperienced squad.
Needless to say, Butcher has no intention of letting that happen. The local rivalry is one factor, but above all for the Hibs manager, this game is about his own team’s survival. The former England international has had a plan for the long-term redevelopment of his new club in place since he arrived at Easter Road, but to begin the process properly this summer he needs to remain in the Premiership.
Hibs will probably need another result, be it a win or a draw, in addition to the three points tomorrow should they collect them. But after such a dismal recent run, there is the feeling that a derby victory would give them such a morale boost that they would go on to secure safety with something to spare.
Butcher is taking none of that for granted, of course. But after a fraught few weeks which culminated in his team losing a goal after only 13 seconds in their last game, he is confident that the spirit around the club is far more positive. Ben Williams’s criticism of his team-mates after defeat by St Mirren – “we’re soft, we’re spoiled” – might have suggested disunity in the camp, but the manager believes the other players have responded to the goalkeeper’s words in the right way.
“He didn’t miss,” Butcher said of Williams’ remarks. “He was very honest. I think some of Kevin Thomson’s quotes this week have been very good as well, about sticking the chest out and showing more pride. That’s terrific.
“From the senior players, we’ve had a terrific response. From everybody, really, but particularly from the senior ones, because I think they are looking at this game in particular and saying ‘Let’s lead from the front’. The senior players are doing just that when it comes to the training and everything else. They’ve got to take that forward now into the game. It’s encouraging.
“You can’t be soft in derby matches, that’s for sure, and we won’t be. So it’s quite relevant and I’m sure the players took that on board. But from what I’ve seen so far, they’ve certainly not been soft when it comes to the training, because I think everybody wants to get into the team.
“I’ve tried to rally the boys as well. We had good conversations this week and trained very, very hard. They’ve certainly shown an appetite for the game this weekend, which is brilliant.
“You have to. You do sense an uptake in intensity. If you look at the way they’ve gone about their work, it’s been enjoyable, it’s been loud, which is great, because it probably hasn’t been in the past. I’ve been very pleased.
“It’s probably taken a poor run and the fact it’s a derby match to get everybody really together. The comments the boys have made have certainly ruffled a few feathers, but they’ve certainly ruffled a few feathers the right way.
“We’re all very much focused and we’re all together. Probably more so now than ever before.”
Butcher believes that if the proper attitude is in place, the right results cannot be far behind. After four consecutive defeats in which Hibs have not scored a goal, they may be due a lucky break.
There will almost certainly be fewer changes this time than in the past few weeks. Ryan McGivern is available again after suspension and Scott Robertson could be back in the squad following injury, but James McPake will not be risked despite playing the full 90 minutes in an under-20s match this week on his return to competitive action after back surgery.
“James won’t be involved on Sunday,” Butcher said. “He played on Tuesday and I think he was like a poker on Wednesday. That was a massive challenge for James to get back playing: it was a huge hurdle he got over in that match.
“He’s not quite ready for first-team action. He’ll play in the under-20s on Tuesday and then we’ll see after that. He was asked the question ‘would you like to play the game?’ and of course he’s going to say ‘yes’. If he only had one leg he would like to play in the game, but that’s James being James. He’s not quite ready for that yet, though.”
But are Hibs ready for the derby, after playing second fiddle the last time, when an early Dale Carrick goal had them on the back foot before Billy King ensured the win in stoppage time? Butcher certainly thinks so, but would not be averse to enjoying a spot of good fortune after Jordon Forster was erroneously ruled offside when he headed in what he thought was the equaliser.
“It’s amazing how the tables have turned,” the manager added. “They’ve sold out their section and we sold out our section before.
“Let’s hope it’s a 2-0 win for the home team and the referee disallows a goal for them. That would be great.”