The tide may not have entirely turned as match-winner Ross Caldwell claimed in the euphoric aftermath of Hibs’ first derby win at Tynecastle in four years – but there has certainly been a subtle shift in power towards the east end of the Capital.
In the build-up to the fifth and final clash between Edinburgh’s big two Hearts goalkeeper James MacDonald insisted his side remained top dogs by dint of the fact Hibs had won just once since Derek Riordan’s penalty had sent those in green and white into ecstasy in the spring of 2009.
That win had, of course, come in the Scottish Cup, Pat Fenlon’s side having exacted the smallest measure of recompense for the humiliation of that day at Hampden last May but, as far as SPL business was concerned, there was no discernible distance between the sides with all three matches prior to this encounter at Tynecastle having ended in stalemate.
Both clubs could, though, present an argument as to why they should have emerged triumphant on at least one occasion. Hearts would point to the last time Hibs travelled to Gorgie and emerged with a battling draw while Fenlon’s players would highlight the opening derby of the season which they felt they had edged and, most certainly, the last encounter when everyone inside Easter Road bar those who mattered most, referee Euan Norris and his assistant Raymond Whyte, failed to spot Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick had crossed the line.
This time round, however, there was no disputing the fact that Hibs were by far the better side over the 90 minutes, bossing the first half only to fall victim to a sucker punch as Darren Barr prodded home his first goal since May 19 last year in the final minute of the first period. “We probably didn’t deserve it,” admitted Jambos boss Gary Locke.
A trademark free-kick from Griffiths, his 28th of the season to equal Steve Cowan’s record of 1986 and a step closer to becoming the first Hibs player to score 30 in a season for 40 years, hauled the Easter Road outfit level and, again Locke was less than pleased. “We gave away a silly free-kick,” was his assessment of Mehdi Taouil’s challenge on Alex Harris some 30 yards out, before adding: “They have a player very capable from distance. Give him half a chance he will put it away.”
Griffiths certainly did, striking the ball left-footed beyond MacDonald and into the corner of the net. A stunning effort but, so too, was Caldwell’s winner with just six seconds of regulation time remaining and with both sets of fans probably about to settle for yet another draw.
Again, Locke could point to deficiencies within his team. Hibs substitute Scott Robertson played what looked like an innocuous ball forward, knocking it out of play deep in home territory but Hearts lost possession from their throw-in, the former Dundee United midfielder seizing the opportunity to play it into Caldwell who lifted his head and curled the ball high beyond MacDonald and into the same corner Griffiths had found.
It may have been his first senior derby goal but Caldwell, seemingly, just can’t stop scoring when confronted by Hearts having claimed seven in seven starts against the Jambos at Under-19 and Under-20 level, the youngster somewhat understating his achievement by saying: “It’s the best way to finish a derby, getting the winning goal. I’m pleased with that.”
Not half as chuffed as the Hibs fans behind MacDonald’s goal; at last they had something to celebrate at the home of their biggest rivals although one or two took things too far after both goals by encroaching on the playing surface and releasing flares which burned on the pitch.
Their unconfined joy, however, was easy to understand, they’d waited long enough and suffered enough over the past four years and, if truth be told, one glance at the team sheet prior to kick-off probably didn’t give them too much hope that this was to be their day. Skipper James McPake and fellow defenders Ryan McGivern and Tim Clancy were all missing through injury, Fenlon adamant it wasn’t a case of resting them ahead of the cup final with Celtic a fortnight hence, meaning a debut for 19-year-old Jordon Forster at the heart of a reshaped defence in which only Paul Hanlon retained his place from Kilmarnock seven days earlier.
It completed a remarkable week for the 6ft 2in youngster who had played twice in three days in midweek against Celtic’s League and Cup double winning Under-20 side, matches which the Hibs kids won 2-1 on each occasion to ensure a third-place finish in their own campaign.
And confronted with the daunting figures of John Sutton and Michael Ngoo, the former Boroughmuir pupil didn’t look at all out of place in a Hibs starting XI which, with Kevin Thomson back at the club for a second spell, boasted six home-grown players.
With Caldwell partnering Griffiths up front, 18-year-old Alex Harris switched from left to right of the middle four, giving Hibs width on the right from where he created his side’s first chance, exchanging passes with Caldwell only to see MacDonald push away his shot. MacDonald did likewise with a Caldwell effort while a powerfully struck Griffiths free-kick was on target only to crash off a maroon shirt and spin wide.
Even heading for the tunnel at half-time still on level terms would probably have disappointed Hibs but they suffered a hammer blow seconds beforehand, goalkeeper Ben Williams, captain for the day, getting under a Kevin McHattie corner as he had done early in the game when both Ngoo and Barr saw close-range efforts blocked.
This time Williams wasn’t so lucky, Ngoo’s initial header was cleared off the line but there was Barr to knock it home. “We just said to the players you have shown you are the better team on the day, just go and win it,” revealed Fenlon of his team talk during the interval, adding: “And in fairness to them they showed tremendous character. We could have buckled after conceding a goal like that.
“It was a fantastic finish from Ross and Leigh’s free-kick was different class.”
As the Hearts players made the traditional end-of-season trip around Tynecastle, this being their last home game of the season, almost outnumbering the fans who had stayed behind to applaud them, Fenlon and his players headed back across the city for their own Player of the Year Dinner.
No wild celebrations, though, with Wednesday’s rearranged game against Kilmarnock and a final home match with Dundee to come and all eyes firmly fixed on finishing seventh before the trip to Hampden. Fenlon said: “I am sure it will be a great evening, but teetotal with the boys back in the morning.”