ON A night when they had a nationwide live UK television audience all to themselves, Hearts and Hibs chose the worst possible time to produce the first goalless draw in the Edinburgh derby since 2009.
Bookings: Hibernian: McGivern, Hanlon, Wotherspoon
Those neutrals who tuned in out of curiosity would sadly have formed a low opinion of the current state of SPL football. It was dismal stuff for long periods, the high-octane nature of the contest hardly compensating for the deficiencies in both technique and composure.
The best moments of the evening came in the closing stages when both teams passed up good chances to claim all three points, Hearts coming closest of all in the 90th minute when John Sutton headed against the crossbar for John McGlynn’s side.
Pat Fenlon and his players will draw greater satisfaction from a result that keeps Hibs six points clear of their rivals in the league table but this was an evening that gave neither team anything to boast about.
As ever, this fixture lacked nothing in terms of atmosphere and a sense of occasion. But the adrenaline-fuelled approach it brought out of both teams was hardly conducive to fluent football.
With referee Willie Collum’s whistle never far from his lips as he signalled a succession of fouls in the frantic opening stages, there was precious little in the way of incisive passing or significant goalmouth incident.
Hearts may have felt more satisfied with the initial pattern of the match, their reshuffled defence managing to settle into proceedings without too much cause for alarm. Andy Webster, lain low by ‘flu, joined China-bound Ryan McGowan on the absentee list for the home side. Manager McGlynn deployed Darren Barr at right-back, while McGowan’s younger brother Dylan partnered captain Marius Zaliukas in central defence.
Hibs welcomed back on-loan Manchester City left-back Ryan McGivern in place of Lewis Stevenson in the only change to their starting line-up from Saturday’s win over Celtic, a result that should perhaps have given them the edge in terms of confidence and momentum coming into this latest locking of horns with their great rivals.
But neither team were convincing in a first half that started at breakneck speed and scarcely slowed down at any point. The first moment of threat to either goal came in the 16th minute, Tim Clancy’s free-kick into the heart of the penalty area forcing Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald to punch the ball clear. MacDonald was flattened in the process by a late challenge from Eoin Doyle, the Hibs striker fortunate to escape with just a warning from Mr Collum.
It was the visitors who finally managed the first attempt on target of the night eight minutes later, Doyle finding some rare space and time on the right to pick out Paul Cairney inside the box. The midfielder would feel he should have done better than drive his right foot shot straight at MacDonald who saved
It was Barr’s turn to benefit from the referee’s leniency when he was recklessly late with a sliding challenge on Cairney, which fortunately did not connect fully with the Hibs player.
Hearts had lacked penetration in the attacking third of the field, lone striker John Sutton lacking both support and worthwhile service. But they should have gone in front in the 32nd minute. Ryan Stevenson’s long through ball picked out Scott Robinson’s run beyond the Hibs defence, forcing James McPake into a lunging challenge.
The home side claimed for a penalty and the Hibs captain certainly appeared to foul Robinson. But when play was waved on, the ball broke to Andrew Driver who wastefully dragged his shot across the face of the six-yard box and wide of Ben Williams’ right hand post.
Tempers threatened to boil over on more than one occasion and Stevenson could count himself lucky not to receive any sanction for a late challenge on McPake which incensed the Hibs defender.
Sutton tried his luck from distance a minute from the interval, his shot dipping just over Williams’ crossbar, but the half-time whistle arrived as something of a merciful release from the generally desolate fare that had been served up.
If the standard of football did not radically improve after the break, at least both sides managed to create some clear-cut scoring opportunities. Hearts, forced to replace the injured Robinson with Jason Holt three minutes after the restart, came agonisingly close to the breakthrough when Medhi Taouil smashed a 22-yard free-kick through the Hibs defensive wall.
Williams was unable to hold the ball, which broke into the path of Stevenson, only for the midfielder to scuff it wide of the target from a yard out.
Hearts were enjoying greater territorial dominance but it was Hibs who carved out the best chance of the night so far on the counter-attack in the 54th minute. Cairney split the Hearts defence with a superb diagonal pass to pick out Doyle’s run through the inside right channel. The Irishman was put under pressure by Kevin McHattie’s sliding challenge just as he took his shot, but he should still have done better than blaze his right foot attempt over the top from around ten yards.
Mr Collum finally produced his yellow card for the first time two minutes later, Paul Hanlon the recipient for a foul on Arvydas Novikovas. As Hearts applied pressure that was fairly sustained without ever calling Williams into serious action, McGivern and substitute David Wotherspoon also collected cautions for the visitors.
As the match entered a tense closing spell, with the fear of defeat now perhaps greater than the desire to claim victory, there were premium opportunities for both teams. In the 81st minute, Wotherspoon headed a superbly delivered Leigh Griffiths corner just over the crossbar. A minute later, Holt looked certain to put Hearts in front after breaking free and taking the ball around Williams, only for his deliberately struck shot to be blocked by McGivern in the six-yard box.
The home team came even closer in the 90th minute, Sutton getting on the end of a corner from substitute Jamie Walker and thumping a header against the crossbar. Barr nodded the rebound over and the last chance of an unforgettable contest had gone.
Hearts: MacDonald, Barr, McGowan, Zaliukas, McHattie; Driver (Walker 84), Stevenson, Robinson (Holt 48), Taouil, Novikovas (Paterson 68); Sutton. Subs not used: Enckelman, Smith, Prychynenko, Mullen.
Hibernian: Williams, Clancy, Hanlon, McPake, McGivern; Deegan, Taiwo (Stevenson 73), Claros, Cairney (Wotherspoon 55); Griffiths, Doyle. Subs not used: Murdoch, Maybury, Handling, Caldwell, Donaldson.