NEW division, same old outcome. Hearts continued their recent run of dominance over their rivals yesterday with a powerful performance that was rendered even more impressive considering they were forced to field a 20-year-old rookie in goal.
SCORERS - Hearts: Nicholson 76, Buaben 80 (pen); Hibernian: El Alagui 90
Three goals, two of them superbly executed, and such dramatic details as a missed penalty and two red cards, as well as an alleged headbutt, might point towards a match that was rich in entertainment. That, however, would be a wrong conclusion to draw. This was a sight for sore eyes – and heads. As ever with the Edinburgh derby, the low quality fare on offer was helpfully obscured by bust-ups and controversy aplenty.
Hibs skipper Liam Craig, who missed a first-half penalty, raged about an incident in the far corner of the pitch as the players prepared to depart down the tunnel at the end. The culprit was said to be Hearts substitute Jamie Walker, the victim Lewis Stevenson.
The offence, if there was one, went unpunished. Hearts striker Osman Sow was, however, given a late red card for a nasty-looking elbow on Michael Nelson while Scott Robertson received his marching orders, and conceded a penalty, when he barged into Prince Buaben, having already been booked.
Unlike Hibs, Hearts took full advantage of the award. Buaben picked himself up off the floor and sent his kick high into the net to put his side two goals in front.
The deadlock was broken after 76 minutes by Sam Nicholson, who nut-megged Robertson as he drove at the Hibs rearguard before hitting home a sweetly-struck shot from 20 yards.
An equally fine goal from Hibs striker Farid El Alagui a minute from time served to scare Hearts, who had looked to be in a commanding position. It was during their subsequent attempts to keep the ball away from the danger area that a rammy erupted in the far corner, with players clashing after Craig had barged down a free-kick. The episode saw lots of dark mutterings later about someone having ‘stuck the head in’.
The final whistle brought an outbreak of finger-pointing and players being held back by team-mates. Once the confrontations had ended, some love broke out. Jack Hamilton, the 20-year-old debutant who was given a huge vote of confidence by Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson when he was selected to start, found himself swamped by hugs.
Emergency signing Lee Hollis had been expected to take the gloves following a run of hard luck in which first-choice ’keeper Neil Alexander sustained a fractured cheekbone and back-up Scott Gallacher twisted an ankle in training. Hibs will rue not having tested Hamilton more but the ’keeper, who was making his senior debut, dealt with some late pressure well, including making a point-blank stop from El Alagui’s header.
If there was a star performer then it was Hamilton, who wore the number 13 on his back. The goalkeeper suffered some misfortune when he conceded a penalty just 30 minutes into his first senior appearance after he was adjudged to have impeded Danny Handling.
There was some additional concern that he might mark his Hearts debut by being ordered from the pitch by Willie Collum. However, the referee was content to show a yellow card, which meant the ’keeper now had the chance to emerge as a hero by stopping Craig’s effort.
He didn’t have to. Craig’s attempt was as weak a kick as you will want to see. The Hibs supporters will certainly not wish to witness such an effort ever again. As they feared, it proved a decisive moment. Had Hibs managed to establish a foothold in the game then there is every reason to wonder how differently things might have turned out. Craig took a long run-up and then decided to try to clip an effort into the corner. Instead, his shot trundled weakly wide. He had committed the ultimate mistake of failing to hit the target. The inexperienced 20 year old in goal did not even have to move.
It was a shame for Craig, who had started the game in determined manner. Perhaps predictably, his influence waned thereafter in the first Edinburgh derby to be played outwith the top tier.
So this, then, was a significant afternoon not only in terms of laying down an early marker in the promotion race. A special commemorative programme was issued “marking the first-ever Edinburgh derby played outside the top division”. It was highly optimistic to expect that this new status might somehow produce a higher quality game than has been the norm in recent times. It was more realistic to expect an even lower standard of match. And that, sadly, is what we got.
That’s not to say it lacked intrigue. But despite the positive noises emanating from both camps pre-match there was little opportunity for either team to play football. Although they lost, Hibs did show enough brio to hearten their fans.
One major difference to last season is that they now have some obvious talent on the bench, though Hibs manager Alan Stubbs opted to keep Matthew Kennedy and Scott Allan in reserve until late in the game. Even without these skilled midfielders, Hibs looked a far brighter outfit than last season. Alex Harris, for one, seems to have benefited from the summer break. Both he and Sam Stanton cut more powerful figures.
There were some reminders of the unlamented reign of Terry Butcher. Nelson took a knock in an aerial challenge with Sow and reappeared with a bandage that recalled the former England skipper’s bloodied heroics in a World Cup qualifying game. The Hibs defender was very unhappy that Sow escaped punishment until the incident towards the end when the striker was sent off.
Again, Sow had raised an elbow while challenging in the air. Again, Nelson came off worse, with the blow re-opening the gash that Sow had caused in the first half. This time Collum was quick to brandish a red card. But even with ten men, Hearts held on, though it might have been interesting had El Alagui’s goal come slightly earlier. The French-Moroccan striker seized on a mistake by Danny Wilson on the edge of the box and lifted the ball over the defender’s head before half-volleying into the corner. It meant there was to be no clean sheet for Hamilton, but then he already had enough reason to remember his first derby.