Mike Aitken sees capital teams justify their title challenge
Hibernian 1, Hearts 1 The Scotsman, 4 November, 1991
IF TWO Wrights made a wrong so far as Hearts were concerned in an absorbing and combative derby, both clubs managed to emerge from a spine-tingling 90 minutes not only with reasons to be cheerful about their respective performances but also about their prospects in the championship.
Dave McPherson, the captain of Hearts and arguably the most complete defender in Scotland this season, made the point yesterday that before the season started, the nagging concern for all Premier Division footballers who earn their living outwith Ibrox was that Rangers would run away with the title.
Ever since Hearts, with a significant 1-0 victory at Tynecastle early in the campaign, played their part in drawing Rangers back into the pack of teams congesting the top half of the table, the championship race has taken on its most open look in years.
The leading six all seem to be in contention, with the challenge being mounted in Edinburgh growing more meaningful each week.
The last time Hearts and Hibs met, at Tynecastle at the end of August, it was hard to justify their lofty league positions on the evidence of a dismal goalless draw.
Although it produced another stalemate, Saturday’s contest was much stronger on atmosphere and endeavour, and play ebbed and flowed on a grand scale. It was, in short, the most exciting football match I’ve seen this season.
True, in the hard tradition of local derbies, it was no essay in the finer points of the game. Long passages of play saw the ball whacked from back to front with a ferocity of commitment and an injection of pace that took the breath away.
It was one of those games where you couldn’t take your eye off the play for a second without running the risk of missing something pretty crucial.
Even the final act was almost impossibly theatrical. The game had spilled over into injury time when Dave Beaumont thumped a free kick into Hearts’ penalty area. For the first time, Henry Smith’s handling was unsure. The ball squirmed from the goalkeeper’s grasp and Keith Wright knocked the ball goalwards. By the time it crawled narrowly past the post, the referee’s whistle had blown to signal the end of a cliff-hanging contest.
Such drama was made possible largely by John Robertson’s early goal, which opened up the game like a flower. The little striker always seems to be energised by the sight of green jerseys, and a lethal close-range finish marked the 18th goal of his career with Hearts against Hibs.
Keith Wright’s eighth goal of the season was his first for Hibs against Hearts – it came courtesy of a seriously miscalculated passback by George Wright – but it’s unlikely to be his last. Like Robertson, Wright led his side’s attack with dash and invention.
On this showing it would be interesting to see the pair of them together in a Scotland context: Wright’s drive and Robertson’s opportunism could have the makings of an international striking partnership.
Over the piece, Hearts had an edge on composure in midfield thanks to Derek Ferguson and Gary Mackay while Hibs, after a shaky start by their central defenders, looked more assured at the back, where Tommy McIntyre was tireless.
The Skol Cup holders have a couple of games in hand on their rivals, and a win over Airdrie at Easter Road tomorrow night, when Gordon Hunter may return, would take Hibs to within three points of the leadership.
There was no sign in the aftermath of their Hampden triumph of Hibs lacking the ambition to mount a spirited league campaign.
Hearts returned to the top of the tree because no team in the country at the moment poses a greater threat away from home. Like his captain, Hearts manager Joe Jordan believes that increased competition in the league can only be beneficial for the game.
“Last year it was a two-horse race with only Aberdeen offering a challenge to Rangers,” he said. “Now there are six clubs involved and it’s important for Scottish football that no-one is running away with it.”
Hibernian: Burridge, Miller, Mitchell, Beaumont, McIntyre, MacLeod, Weir, Hamilton, K Wright, Evans, McGinlay.
Hearts: Smith, McLaren, Hogg, G Wright, Mackay, McPherson, Crabbe, D Ferguson, Baird, Millar, Robertson.
Referee: A Waddell