DERBY goals can set players apart from their contemporaries. Ask Kevin Kyle, Mark de Vries or Rudi Skacel about the impact scoring for Hearts against Hibs had on their careers. The answer will be long-winded.
John Sutton has yet to experience the thrill of bulging a net in the Edinburgh derby. He was tantalisingly close at Easter Road in March, only for the hulking frame of Michael Ngoo to inadvertently block his goalbound header.
He will try again on Sunday when Hibs visit Tynecastle and, given he is enjoying his most prosperous spell since joining Hearts two years ago, will be amongst the favourites to score.
“I haven’t scored in a derby yet, big Mikey saw to that last time,” laughed Sutton. “I suppose it’s difficult to get out of the way when you’re that tall. To be fair to the big man, he’s set me up for a couple of goals so I can’t complain too much. He’s been brilliant and I’m hoping he’s going to be fit for Sunday because it gives us more options.
“Playing more attacking players like myself, Michael, Speedy (Dale Carrick) and Jamie Walker gives us more of a threat. We look more dangerous now.”
Most who have seen Hearts in recent weeks would agree that is the case. Indeed, the form of both Edinburgh clubs points to a home victory this weekend, although Sutton and his colleagues will take nothing for granted given the unpredictability of such matches.
Hearts have won three of their last four games, whilst Hibs have managed only one league win all year. They have reached the Scottish Cup final, but will be aware of the momentum built by Hearts under their recently-appointed manager, Gary Locke.
Sutton has benefitted more than most from Locke’s decision to employ a two-man forward line.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily the formation so much, it’s more the mindset you use when playing it,” continued the Englishman. “The manager is demanding we work hard up front and drop back in to help the midfield as well. I think the whole team has much more of an attacking mindset; a feeling that we can go out there and be the better team and dominate games, rather than hang on in there and nick a goal.
“I don’t think it matters who plays up front. When you go out with that approach, it’s always a good thing to have.”
A goal against Hibs would cement Sutton’s own rejuvenation under Locke, although he is not hung up on that one statistic.
“I just like to win, to be honest. I came on as sub when we won the derby before and it was a fantastic feeling. Come Sunday, I’m not really worried who scores, as long as we get the three points. That would help us in our efforts to get seventh and give us more momentum to finish off the job up at Aberdeen in the last game of the season. If we can do that, everyone will be looking forward to next season with a lot of optimism.”
There remains a fierce passion within the Riccarton dressing room to ensure Hearts finish this campaign ahead of their city rivals. The players feel that scenario would offer a small reward to the supporters whose loyal backing has been clear for all to see this season through the club’s share issue.
“These are big games at any time and we want to finish above Hibs,” said Sutton. “That’s in our hands now, if we win our last two games, so it’s big from that point of view. Obviously we’d much rather be going for second or third place and be beating them to that, but we’re in the bottom six and the aim is to finish seventh. Winning on Sunday would certainly help us end the season on a high.
“It’s quite a big motivation for us to finish higher than Hibs. Whether Hibs were in the bottom six or not, we wanted to be the best in that little group. Now that Hibs are in it, there is a feeling amongst the players that we want to finish above our rivals.
“It’s probably more so for the fans. Over the summer, when there’s no football, they will know we finished above them or they finished above us. It would be nice to sneak ahead of them for that reason.
“Looking to next year, we want to be challenging at the top end of the top six. Sunday is a big game, but, at the same time, we hope there will be bigger games next season.”
Sutton concurs with theories that Hearts are playing some of their best football just as the season is drawing to a close. If that is somewhat frustrating for players and fans alike, he believes continuing the improvement throughout the summer offers hope of more consistency next year.
“We’re playing some decent stuff and there are certainly signs that we’re improving in certain areas. I don’t think anyone is getting complacent,” he continued. “We haven’t been consistent this year and the standards we’re going to set ourselves now are going to be a lot higher.
“We played well for 90 minutes last weekend, but there is still a lot more to come from us. We need to improve week on week and that continues against Hibs.
“They will have been disappointed not to make it into the top six and they’re certainly a very tough team to beat these days. They’ve improved vastly from last season, so this will be a good test for us.
“I think Hibs have a whole team now who, firstly, are going to put a hell of a shift in. There are no easy games against them and I don’t think they’ve been beaten too heavily at any stage of the season. Defensively, they’ve tightened up a lot and they have much tougher characters throughout their team now.”