Hibs manager Alan Stubbs insists it’s only a matter of time before upper hand in Hearts v Hibs derby changes
ALAN Stubbs has been Hibernian manager for just a few months, and has only been in charge for one Edinburgh derby. But that timespan is more than long enough for him to have come to terms with his club’s dismal record in the fixture, and to appreciate that the attempt to tip the balance even a little in Hibs’ favour could be the pivotal task of his time in the post.
We tend to view the Hearts-Hibs clash as a series in its own right; one in which form counts for little or nothing, and weird things happen which bear little relation to the clubs’ other matches. But in reality, the vices and virtues exhibited by both teams in the derby, far from arising out of nothing, are deep within their psyches.
Above all, the soft centre that has cost Hibs so dearly against their city rivals in recent years is not merely a response to the pressures of this one particular match. It is a failing that has been increasingly evident no matter who their opponents are; one which was among the principal reasons for their being relegated last season.
So Stubbs must be aware that if he inculcates good habits in his squad in the derby, those habits will have a good chance of extending to other games. Be really competitive against Hearts, tough it out against Hearts, above all learn how to win against Hearts – if they can do those things, this Hibs team will surely also attain a consistently higher standard in the rest of their matches.
Given the 14-point gap that already exists between them and the Championship leaders, tomorrow would be as good a time as any, from a Hibs point of view, to acquire those virtues. No matter what they say about it being a long season, if Stubbs’ club fall 17 points behind Hearts, their already-slim hopes of automatic promotion will be lessened still further. They should still be in the running for a play-off place, all right, but tomorrow is probably their last chance to turn the fight between Hearts and Rangers into a three-horse race.
Hearts, by contrast, have the luxury of knowing they will still be at the top of the table whatever the result, although that cushion is unlikely to induce any sort of complacency. Robbie Neilson has made an impressive start in general to his career as head coach at Tynecastle, and has been particularly assiduous in ensuring his team do not get carried away by their unbeaten start.
“We respect Hearts,” Stubbs said yesterday. “They’re the team to catch – there’s no denying that.
“But they’re catchable. If we get a result on Sunday, it turns it around again. There’s a long way to go. They’ve made an impressive start and we’ll be trying to put a dent in that.”
At his own press conference on Thursday, Neilson said that self-possession, not passion, was the key to coming out on top in big games such as this, and yesterday Stubbs agreed. “What does it take to win derbies?” he asked. “Courage. Carrying out your game plan. Not getting caught up in the emotion. Us being better than them.
“There’s not just one thing you can stick your finger on – a lot of elements decide games of football. Better decision-making, creating opportunities, taking opportunities, they all fall into the one bracket of winning games of football.
“There are lots of overriding factors, but more often than not the team who comes out on top is the team who handle the occasion the best. That will be the biggest thing: the team who settle down quickest, get into their stride, into their game plan – and carries it out better than the other team.
“I can only judge it on what has happened since I’ve been here. We’ve played them once, the result didn’t go our way – but it could have.
“There were moments in the game where we had an opportunity to put ourselves in the lead. It would have been interesting if that had happened.
“From that game, Hearts have obviously started the season very well. But we’re not afraid of them coming here. As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t a lot in the game at Tynecastle.”
That analysis may help convince Stubbs that his team will win a derby sooner rather than later, but he also believes from past experience that a reversal of fortunes is inevitable. “Whether one team has got the hoodoo or whatever you want to call it over another team, it will change. It’s just a matter of time before it will change. If people want to disagree with me on that, then I’m afraid they’re wrong.
“Because it’s just a matter of time before it changes. I had it at Everton with Liverpool. Liverpool had it over Everton. But it changes.”
If there is a doubt about Hearts at present, it lies in how they will respond to adversity. Not only have they yet to lose a game in the league, they have not even gone behind.
Having said that, they were severely tested at Ibrox in the first game of the season, when Rangers equalised in the closing stages. And they responded superbly, going back upfield and scoring the winner barely a minute later.
Osman Sow, the scorer of that goal, will be extremely difficult for the Hibs defence to contain tomorrow. Already without Jordon Forster, Stubbs could be deprived of a second centre-back if Liam Fontaine fails a fitness test – “he’s making progress, only time will tell”, was the manager’s verdict yesterday.
If Fontaine is out, Callum Booth will probably partner Paul Hanlon in the centre of the home defence. That combination will not inspire confidence in many home fans, and will look distinctly lightweight compared to Hearts’ central pairing of Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk.
With Sam Nicholson in such good form out wide, Hearts will try to set up a steady supply of balls into the box for Sow and Soufian El Hassnaoui to chase. But the main battle, as usual, will be in central midfield, where Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben have been outstanding for Hearts. If those two get on top, Neilson’s team will surely extend their unbeaten run to 11, and Stubbs’ belief in the inevitability of change will have to wait at least a little bit longer before being proven correct.