GORDON HUNTER admits he left Tynecastle with mixed emotions on Thursday night, delighted to have seen Pat Fenlon’s side unbeaten in an Edinburgh derby for the third time this season, but disappointed Hibs hadn’t departed with all three points.
The former Easter Road defender was in Gorgie along with former team-mates Andy Goram, Keith Wright and Mickey Weir to provide some much-needed entertainment at half-time following a dire opening 45 minutes by taking part in a penalty shoot-out against Hearts stars of yesteryear.
While Hunter and Co won that light-hearted exchange, the more serious business either side of their cameo appearance saw the Capital rivals battle out a grim draw in a match which the home side edged in terms of possession, territory and chances created.
However, while John Sutton smacked a late header off the bar and substitute Jason Holt saw a net-bound effort taken off the line by Hibs defender Ryan McGivern, the Jambos couldn’t find that elusive winner, leaving Hibs boss Fenlon to declare himself satisfied with a point which leaves his side just one short of their tally for the whole of last season.
Hunter, though, revealed that while Hibs have shown obvious signs of improvement since the debacle that was the Scottish Cup final of last season, he was left somewhat disappointed his old club hadn’t taken more advantage of finding Hearts without Ryan McGowan – the Aussie having departed for a new career in China – and flu victim Andy Webster, the bedrock of their defence.
He said: “Perhaps it was a chance missed. I think you’d have been happy to see those names missing from the Hearts teamsheet before the game and with a couple of young lads having to come in. But sometimes it’s easier for youngsters to come in when perhaps there’s not a great deal expected of them.
“They did well, but what they’ll find is that once you are in the team on a regular basis it becomes that bit harder.
“Having said that, although it wasn’t a great match, Hearts probably edged it: they were looking stronger in the second half with Andy Driver doing well for them.”
As Fenlon observed afterwards, it was the sort of game Hibs would most likely have lost last season, an opinion with which Hunter totally agreed, although, as a former defender himself, he insisted there was much he could admire as the Easter Road side battled for their point. Hunter, who ended Hearts’ record run of 22 derbies without defeat, said: “What I was used to in these games was getting the tackles in regardless of how the game was going, but in the final it just never happened.
“This season, though, everyone is looking determined and strong. They said they’d never be run over the top of again and even if Hearts edged it the other night they were still battling away, and the one thing is they can say that’s now three derbies in a row they haven’t lost.
“As a defender, you have to enjoy defending, you have to want to make your tackles, to win every one of them, and you could see the Hibs players working really hard for each other and willing to make and win their tackles.
“I think Paul Hanlon has improved playing alongside James McPake and I like Ryan McGivern. He’s a clever player and he showed his intelligence when their guy got clear and looked like he was going to score.
“Rather than go to the ball, he got himself back towards his own line and was able to clear, a vital stop because, at that stage, it was very much looking like one goal was going to be the winner.”
Hibs themselves had a glorious opportunity to take the lead when Paul Cairney’s superb crossfield pass left Eoin Doyle with a clear run-in on Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald only for the Irish hitman to loft his shot over the bar. Hunter said: “I know Keith Wright likes Doyle; he had him for the first scorer. Keith obviously knows more about being a striker than me, and he likes Doyle’s movement, he thinks he’s really good in and around the box, but maybe wide right isn’t his position, although he had obviously been given a job to do by his manager. Mickey had been at the Celtic game and felt Hibs played really well and, I suppose, if you look at the two games you’d have settled for four points from them beforehand.”
With both sides having set up in a 4-5-1 formation they more or less cancelled each other out with good passing football at a premium for long spells as the ball was booted from one end of the pitch to the other with a distinct lack of finesse, but regardless of what system each manager favoured, Hunter insisted the desire to win should override everything.
He said: “Even during that horrible run we never went into a game against Hearts, either at Easter Road or at Tynecastle, believing a point would do. We always went out determined to win and, as everyone knows, there were many times when we were the better team, but just couldn’t get over the line.
“You can talk all you want about formations and systems, but, once you get on the park, they are your biggest rivals and all you want to do is beat them.
“Thursday night, though, was probably the sort of game Hibs could well have lost last season.
“They’d most likely have lost a goal as Hearts turned up the pressure a bit towards the end, and it’s quite remarkable to think Hibs are now just a point short of their total for the whole of last season, which is a sign of the progress that’s being made.”