Aidan Smith: Hearts dream of unbeaten season

'Neilson wasn't having fights with water-bottles, as Arsene Wenger had once done". Picture: SNS
'Neilson wasn't having fights with water-bottles, as Arsene Wenger had once done". Picture: SNS
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COULD Hearts do it? Could they go a whole season undefeated to emulate Arsenal’s Les Invincibles, battening down all Tynecastle hatches and travelling imperiously, writing themselves into the history books as one of Scotland’s most-illustrious?

If so, who was going to supply the “Va-va-voom” à la Thierry Henry? Who would assume the role of brilliant-but-unloveable Ashley Cole? Who was going to be the Gigantor of the midfield, Patrick Vieira? The conflicted backline bulwark, Sol Campbell? And – don’t all fight over this one lads – the underpants model, Freddie Ljungberg?

It’s still October, the clocks have only just gone back, and much too premature to be asking such questions, but Hearts nipped across town to Easter Road yesterday and even the most dour, each-game-as-it-comes pragmatist would have conceded that if this one could be safely negotiated, such daft dreams could yet come true.

The Hibernian manager, Alan Stubbs, whose stuttering team had accumulated only half of Hearts’ 28 points, wasn’t countenancing such a dread-scenario. “There is no way on this earth I’m thinking the gap will be 17 points after the game,” he said. “No way whatsoever.”

His opposite number, Robbie Neilson, didn’t say much beforehand, or rather completed the bare minimum of media commitments. No big expansive interviews for Neilson, no big reveal. Arsene Wenger used to be called enigmatic purely because he is French. Robbie could qualify for the description on the grounds of how little we know about him.

But there is nothing enigmatic about the Edinburgh derby. The form book goes out the window, as the old cliché goes, and so usually does the style manual. The first 20 minutes were tedious. You could blame the earliness of the kick-off, you could blame the strong wind blowing balloons and rubbish hither and yon. Sam Nicholson who had demonstrated the most flair in the first derby, was quiet on the left flank. Danny Handling, trying to play the 
No  10 role behind the strikers, was being squeezed for room by the macho duo of Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis.

Handling did force Neil Alexander into the first save of the afternoon, and for a time the game threatened to come alive. Soufian El Hassnaoui had Hearts’ best chance and should have scored when Paul Hanlon dithered and stumbled but he shot straight at Mark Oxley.

Then the Hibs goalkeeper sprang a quick attack featuring Handling and Jason Cummings only for the latter to sclaff his shot horribly wide. But Cummings doesn’t want for confidence and a bad miss wasn’t going to put him off. A few minutes later he lined up for a free kick in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo. Same splayed stance and same right foot down and through the ball for the hoped-for big dipper. If Hearts were going to be Arsenal, maybe Hibs were going to be Real Madrid.

The shot was whizzing 20ft wide but cannoned off the wall and a corner resulted. Cummings then contrived to get in the way of a goalbound Liam Fontaine header and had a go himself before, at the third attempt, Dominique Malonga found the roof of the net. Hibs weren’t Real, this wasn’t El Clasico, but the Hibees were ahead.

A much better game then developed. The goal did wonders for Hibs’ confidence, an elusive thing for them in recent derbies, with Allan a sparky threat backed up by clever dead-ball delivery, Dylan McGeouch finding pockets of space to probing effect and Malonga lolloping around, lurking on Alim Ozturk’s shoulder, threatening with a couple of drifting headers.

Hearts were better, too. They had to be, having not produced much in the final third. Nicholson drifted in from his wing and finally, just after the hour-mark, we saw a shot from the young man who lit up the previous derby with a screamer. Billy King, too, got more involved although he contrived to miss Hearts’ best chance when one of numerous Hearts crosses in the second half was met with his fresh-air effort.

By then Buaben and Gomis were part of a three-man defence with Ozturk, injuries forcing the change but also urgency: Hearts had a record to maintain. Hibs, delivering their best performance under Stubbs, continued to be inventive and also brave, always looking for a second goal rather than hold onto what they’d got. Desperation crept into Hearts’ play, not least with Callum Paterson’s ugly lunge on Malonga. Hearts were chucking everything at Hibs. Now, with their derby specialist red-carded, they had a little less to throw.

The Hibs faithful, who had left quite a few corners of the stadium empty for the latest clash, began to sense a victory for Stubbs – something two of his recent predecessors, Colin Calderwood and John Hughes, didn’t manage to achieve in the fixture during their time in the Easter Road dugout.

Meanwhile, Neilson wasn’t getting agitated. He wasn’t having fights with water-bottles, as Arsene Wenger had once done, or fiddling with his coat-zipper in a furious fashion. Though his coolness did disappear when the equaliser came. He leaped up and punched the air, which was the very least Ozturk’s wonder strike deserved.

The Turk made a most unlikely hero. He had not had the most stunning of games, and if a second and decisive Hibs goal had come, we felt he might be somehow culpable. But deep into injury-time he sauntered forward and with no one closing him down, he decided to let fly. He was still 40 yards from goal. Some considerable swerve and dip was going to be required to bring the ball into contention for the goal of the season, but that was what it got.

The Hibs fans were dejected, but those that stayed to the end cheered off their team and cursed football’s cruelty for approximately the 1,742nd time. And the delirious contingent in maroon? “We are unbeatable,” they chanted. “We are unbeatable.”