Hibernian head coach Neil Lennon said he had a gut feeling that his team would have to face up to capital rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup.
The Leith side comfortably negotiated the opening game in their defence of the trophy, overwhelming Junior side Bonnyrigg Rose at the weekend, and having made it safely through to the next round, the Easter Road boss said he expected to draw Hearts in the next round.
“I listened the draw on the radio and, yes, I just knew. I didn’t know which number belonged to which team, but when number eight came out, I thought: that’s us. I had a bit of a wry smile…and thought ‘great!’”
Hearts still had to see off Raith Rovers in a replay at Tynecastle on Wednesday night and having been there to watch the action, Lennon says he is looking forward to an Edinburgh head-to-head.
“It’s a really interesting draw; a derby. It will be a difficult tie, because we are away from home against a Premiership team, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We were at the game on Wednesday night to see what the outcome would be – but it is two or three weeks away so a lot can change between now and then. For the fans, the anticipation will build and build in the coming weeks. For us, we will look forward to it when it arrives.”
But the thought of a trip to the home of their biggest rivals holds no fear for the Championship side, who fared well against top-flight opposition throughout last season’s successful Scottish Cup journey. The memories of recent visits to Gorgie will also fend off any jitters, having overcome St Johnstone in the semi-final of last season’s League Cup there, while the ground also served as the temporary home for Bonnyrigg Rose last weekend, when Lennon’s men made a statement with a comprehensive 8-1 drubbing of the non-league side.
But even against Hearts, they will be buoyed by the late comeback produced in the fifth round of last term’s competition, battling back from 2-0 down to ensure a replay, which they won. Lennon wasn’t at the helm then but he has his own pleasant experiences to draw on. In his last three visits to the ground, his teams have scored 17 goals and conceded just one. In his final season as Celtic boss his side hit Hearts for nine without reply – a 2-0 win and a 7-0 humbling – and added to the scoreline against Rose in his first trip to the ground as Hibs head coach, and he says the stadium is one he enjoys visiting.
“These are slightly different circumstances,” he accepted. “It would be nice to get another seven or eight – but I’m not sure that will be feasible! No, I like the ground, I like the atmosphere there and I’m sure this will be as raucous as anything I have experienced before.”
A veteran of Old Firm derbies, he admitted he has never attended the Edinburgh equivalent. Having described those Glasgow derbies as torture, with so much at stake, he doesn’t know if the capital derby will feel the same but it is a contest he is relishing.
“I don’t know, I’ll let you know after we play them! The hype surrounding the Old Firm is global, whereas this is more parochial or provincial, albeit in a big city. But I am sure it will be just as intense and it will mean as much to the fans as any other derby around the world.
“I’m really looking forward to experiencing the Edinburgh derby. Every great derby has its own sub-plots and signature. This one is no different. It is intense and reflects a great rivalry between the sides.”
But while the rest of the city is gripped by the fixture, Lennon wants his players to put all thoughts of it on the back burner. Winning the Championship title remains his priority and although Hibs have built up a six-point lead over nearest challengers Dundee United he says his men need to remain focused on the job in hand.
“We are talking about it now because Hearts got through this week, and we will talk about it when the tie comes around. Aside from that, I’ve honestly not given it a second thought. I’m more concerned about how we get on against Queen of the South [on Saturday] and Ayr United the week after. It’s really important that we keep winning games in the league, far more important than any Cup tie at the minute.
“The two things can help each other and a good cup run can always build momentum. Stubbsy [his predecessor, Alan Stubbs] might say it was a bit of a hindrance last season, with the amount of games they had, but I think if we have a decent cup run then it will build confidence. But the priority has always been, and will always be, the league.”