IT MIGHT be taking place in a lower division than has been the case in the past, but Hearts could play Hibernian in the East of Scotland League and the fixture would retain its special properties.
This, at least, is the view of Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, who knows a thing or two about this particular derby after a decade-long stint as a first-team player at Tynecastle.
Neilson contends that victory over their oldest rivals this weekend would transform what he described as a “tough” start into a “fantastic” one. It would mean Hearts will have taken six points from their opening two outings against teams expected to be their main challengers for the Championship title. Indeed, such has been the high-octane nature of their first two engagements, it would be understandable if Hearts are still finding it hard to register that they are not in the top tier.
More than 40,000 fans saw Hearts score a winner in the dying seconds against Rangers at Ibrox last weekend and a full house will welcome them on to the pitch on Sunday against Hibs, for the first-ever lower-division derby. Hearts are benefiting from a swell in positivity following their emergence from administration and last weekend’s 2-1 victory has done little to dampen the mood. While it threatened to make life difficult for Hearts, Neilson is glad how two such appetising encounters were front-loaded at the start of the fixture-list.
“You’re maybe gearing up for playing Hibs and Rangers six or seven games into the season and it would have been easy to take the eye off the first few games,” noted Neilson yesterday. “But right from the first day of pre-season, the focus has been there and the talk has been about these first two games.”
With his thoughts turning to Sunday’s derby, he added: “Once the boys are out on the pitch they’ll see that it’s a full house. It doesn’t matter if it’s the SPL or the East of Scotland League. If it’s Hearts v Hibs everyone is at it. It’s still an intense atmosphere and the same enthusiasm. It’s going to be a huge game whether it’s in the Championship or not.”
Neilson has no concerns over those in the much-changed Hearts line-up who are sampling the delights of the Edinburgh derby for the first time. Indeed, he pointed out that Alim Ozturk, Hearts’ new centre-half, was actually persuaded to join the club thanks largely to his experience as a spectator at an Edinburgh derby. He was former Hearts striker Mark de Vries’s guest at an Edinburgh derby in 2012, when the Tynecastle side won 2-0.
“The boys will know what it’s like,” said Neilson. “A lot of them will have played in big games.
“I know one of the reasons Alim signed for us was he’d been to an Edinburgh derby with Mark de Vries. That was the reason he came. He’d opportunities to go elsewhere but he’d sampled that environment and wanted to be part of it. So he knows what to expect. The rest of the players like Danny [Wilson] have had quite a bit of experience [of the fixture] but we’ll discuss it as well with them.
“It’s important that they don’t get carried away,” he added. “It’s easy to go into these games and to lose your head and get caught up in the atmosphere and the passion of it.”
On the subject of those ten v 11 set-ups the players were working on last week prior to the clash with Rangers, Neilson explained that such preparations will continue. When asked why this was necessary, he was able to reply with a statistic that illustrated why director of football Craig Levein believes Neilson is in the vanguard of a new breed of young manager.
Clearly diligent and well informed, Neilson shot back: “Last year there were 45 sending-offs in the Championship. When you look at it like that, it’s one every four games. There will probably be five or six games this season when it will be ten or 11 for or against us. It’s important we prepare for it.”
There is now far less room to manoeuvre for those wishing to introduce themselves to their opposite man. A poor challenge is liable to be punished by the referee. As Neilson pointed out last week, in what is likely to be such a fiercely contested league, teams cannot afford to be left one or more players short during a game. He referenced Walter Kidd as being among the last of those who could perhaps get away with “laying down a marker”. Kidd was on the Hearts coaching staff when Neilson joined the Tynecastle club as a schoolboy in 1996 and, because he also played at right-back, he was a strong influence on the new head coach.
“Walter Kidd, when I was very young, was one of those guys who would go in there and lay down a marker,” Neilson added. “That has drifted slowly out of the game. You can’t do that any more – your first tackle could get you booked and you’re in trouble for the rest of the game. It’s not as physical as it used to be, but the passion is still there. It’s just important nobody gets carried away.”
It is also preferable for no-one to be stretchered off. This was the sad fate that befell Neil Alexander on his league debut for the club. The goalkeeper fractured his cheekbone on Sunday in a collision with Ozturk. Among the consequences is that third-choice ’keeper Jack Hamilton has been recalled from a loan spell with Stenhousemuir. “He’ll be on the bench against Hibs,” confirmed Neilson, who added that he had no fears over Scott Gallacher, who took over in goal from Alexander last Sunday and will continue to deputise over the coming weeks.
“Scott has played big games before,” pointed out Neilson. “He came on against Rangers on Sunday and handled himself really well. I’ve no issues at all with him starting the derby. That’s why we brought him to the club. It’s a great opportunity for Scott.”