WITH little more at stake than a shamefaced squabble over ninth or tenth place, this had been billed by some as the most insignificant Edinburgh derby in years.
Hearts - Barr 45
Hibs - Griffiths 47, Caldwell 89
That may still be the case in terms of the SPL, but for Hibernian it could prove to be a vital part of their preparations for the Scottish Cup final against Celtic on Sunday week.
Hibs’ league campaign remains a story of anti-climax, and although they are now two points ahead of Hearts they have still fallen some way short of what they once promised to achieve. But if they go on to win the cup for the first time in 111 years, all that will be forgotten – and the manner in which they won this game suggests they are running into form at just the right time.
Granted, it was about time they did, because they have been dismal in the league since the turn of the year, winning only one game. And that game, a 1-0 win at St Mirren, was not particularly impressive either.
Their performance here, on the other hand, was far closer to one of their best outings of the season, the home victory over their cup final opponents, again by a single goal, between Christmas and New Year. The perplexing thing about it, however, was that it was achieved without three-quarters of Pat Fenlon’s first-choice back four – and against opponents who were supposed to be far more motivated.
Hearts appeared sapped of energy, showing none of the zip that had been on display against St Mirren a week earlier. It has been a tough season at Tynecastle both on and off the pitch, but it was still reasonable to expect a rousing finale in their last home fixture of the campaign. Instead, Gary Locke’s team were limp, with perhaps only goalscorer Darren Barr and left-back Kevin McHattie coming anywhere close to their best form.
Hibs’ improved showing has to be put in that context: a better, sharper team would not have allowed them to take control of the midfield. But you can only play against the opponents in front of you, and in this instance the visitors’ play was superior to their hosts’ in almost every department.
Curiously, the most glaring exception to that was in goal. Ben Williams, usually the most reliable member of the Hibs defence, looked vulnerable to high balls from the start, and never inspired confidence in a makeshift back four.
Early in the first half the Englishman was fortunate that his goal survived intact when Barr and Michael Ngoo both had efforts cleared off the line from a McHattie corner, but his luck ran out a minute before half-time. McHattie provided the delivery again, and although Ngoo was beaten to the ball at the far post by Tom Taiwo, he could only prod the ball as far as Barr. The centre-half was on the ground, but succeeded in turning the ball into the net .
Still, while Barr’s strike last year had been just the start of his team’s total domination of the game, here it was no more than a very brief high point. Hibs had been the better side throughout the first half, with centre-half Jordon Forster enjoying an assured debut and Alex Harris looking menacing every time he got the ball out on the right, and they wasted no time in getting back on level terms once the second half began.
When Mehdi Taouil needlessly conceded a foul by tackling Harris from behind, there was little doubt who would take the free-kick. Leigh Griffiths faced a four-man wall, but that quartet could do nothing to stop him from curving the ball beyond the reach of a helpless Jamie MacDonald and straight into the top right-hand corner of the net.
More than 30 minutes then went by without a single piece of play even approaching that level of skill, although Hearts enjoyed their best spell of the game during part of that half-hour. Ngoo, celebrated in song by the Hibs support as being worse than former Hearts striker Christian Nade, at last began to menace the defence with a couple of rubbery runs, and Jamie Walker also did his best to unsettle the back four. But too many Hearts players looked out of sorts, with Taouil and Ryan Stevenson coming off second best in central midfield to the unfussily
effective Jorge Claros.
The game could easily have petered out into a draw, and if it had, neither manager would have been too concerned. For Locke, a point might have been regarded as all he could realistically have hoped for, while Fenlon’s principal concern was surely to get through the game without picking up any injuries.
In the last minute of regulation time, however, Ross Caldwell had other ideas. When Jamie Hamill gave the ball away, Hibs substitute Scott Robertson slid in and directed the ball to the teenage striker. Standing on the edge of the box, Caldwell calmly curled a shot past MacDonald, and Hibs had beaten their rivals in the league for the first time since Derek Riordan’s late penalty gave them the three points in May 2009.
Hearts (4-4-2): MacDonald; Hamill, Webster, Barr, McHattie; Holt (G Smith 90), Stevenson, Taouil (D Smith 80), Walker; Sutton, Ngoo (Carrick 68). Subs: Ridgers, McGowan, McKay, King.
Hibs (4-4-2): Williams; Maybury, Forster, Hanlon, Stevenson; Harris, Claros, Taiwo, Thomson (Robertson 81); Caldwell, Griffiths. Subs: Murdoch, Deegan, Doyle, Wotherspoon, Handling, Donaldson.
Referee: Steven McLean.