GARY MACKAY believes Hearts missed a trick in not sticking with a 4-4-2 formation for Thursday’s night’s low-quality goalless draw with Hibs.
And the former Tynecastle midfielder believes manager John McGlynn’s decision to drop striker Gordon Smith in favour of an extra central midfielder was symptomatic of a fear factor which he feels has stifled both teams in each of the three Edinburgh derbies this season.
Hearts have been depleted significantly since a three-year period of derby dominance culminated in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs last May. Across the city, meanwhile, Hibs have worked hard to redress the balance to the point where there appears to be virtually nothing between the two teams.
As a result, Mackay senses derbies have now become more about making sure the other lot don’t win the game, with Hearts’ record appearance holder citing both teams deciding to play with only one central striker as a prime example of this caution.
“I think it was a game where both teams set their stall out more not to lose the game, rather than to win it,” he said. “Although part of the reason for changing from a 4-4-2 was probably to protect the new-look back four, I thought there was an element of trying to match Hibs up with the three in the middle of the park.
“I thought we might have been better sticking to 4-4-2, because, of the Hibs central midfield three [Gary Deegan, Tom Taiwo and Jorge Claros], none of them really run beyond the striker.
“I was disappointed we didn’t play 4-4-2. I think if we had played with two up front and showed the appetite and desire from the first minute that we showed from the 46th minute, then the game would have been there for the winning. I thought we were a bit tentative and I felt that came from taking one of the strikers out of the team.”
There have been only three goals in the three meetings between the sides this term, with both the SPL games ending in stalemate and the Scottish Cup clash at Easter Road last month being decided in favour of Hibs by virtue of an own goal. Albeit to its detriment in terms of quality and finesse, Mackay feels the derby fixture is currently as intensely-fought as it has ever been.
“Because of events last May, there’s a real intensity about the Edinburgh derby these days,” he acknowledged. “I think because Hibs have done a good job of playing catch-up since the cup final, there is now a real fear factor on both sides because neither side wants to give anything away.
“With Hearts not winning any of the three derbies this season, it seems to have caused a wee bit of tension in the Hearts players, as well as the staff, and I think that was apparent on Thursday night. There’s absolutely nothing between the teams at the moment. In fact the two league derbies probably sum up the tightness of the SPL outwith Celtic. All the teams are so closely matched now that a lot of the games are tight and tense, with everybody scrapping for every point they can get. That’s what Thursday night was – it was a scrap.”
Mackay felt the introduction of teenager Jason Holt early in the second half enlivened the match and gave Hearts the edge. “It was a frantic, frenetic 90 minutes with not a lot of quality,” he said. “Over the 90 minutes, Hearts had the majority of the possession, particularly in the second half, and they pressured the Hibs goal quite a lot. But over the piece, Hibs, as the counter-attacking team, probably created as many clear-cut chances as Hearts did. There weren’t a lot of real scoring opportunities but Hibs had their fair share over the course of the game.
“It was only when young Jason Holt came on that either side had a midfielder willing and able to run beyond the striker and get in behind. Jason did very well and was very unlucky not to get a goal. That would have been a great way for him to finish off a very productive substitute appearance.”
Despite the lack of quality on show, Mackay was heartened by the rousing atmosphere created by both sets of supporters inside Tynecastle, and paid tribute to the Hibs fans for honouring the memory of Dewar Melvin, the late Hearts club doctor.
“It was a brilliant atmosphere,” he said. “There was a worry about the Thursday evening kick-off, but although the spitting incident soured the evening, I thought the Hibs supporters showed a real respect in joining in the minute’s applause in memory of the Hearts club doctor. It was absolutely brilliant from our city rivals.
“I was sitting with Tosh McKinlay and when we walked up to take our seats, you could really feel the atmosphere. Sadly it wasn’t matched by the quality of the match. It’ll not be the last time that any derby isn’t particularly pleasing on the eye, though. I played in plenty ugly derby matches in my time, so nothing’s changed in that regard. Sometimes the overwhelming desire to win a derby match means players are unable to play to the level that they, their manager and the fans would like.”