Billy Brown’s words left ringing in Fenlon’s ears

Hearts assistant Billy Brown celebrates his team's victory over Pat Fenlon's Hibs. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hearts assistant Billy Brown celebrates his team's victory over Pat Fenlon's Hibs. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IF the pre-match talk was of Hibernian being the team under most pressure, by the time the home team had emerged for the second half that had been cranked up a few notches.

They needed a goal and they needed one quickly if they were to dispel some of the anxiety sweeping through three of the Easter Road stands.

The punters packed into the other stand had nary a care in the world. They had come to the home of their rivals in hope rather than expectation. They wanted to see their young team put up a fight but they knew in the heart and soul that if this was a game contested on paper, their lads would have little chance of winning. Looking at size, experience, form, finance, strength and depth, in every department this season’s Hibs would score higher than their counterparts. But just as the first derby of the season had proved, the pitch offers underdogs an altogether different platform.

Hibs had the home advantage but they also had the burden of expectation.

In the build-up it had been suggested that they have not covered themselves in glory when faced with such situations in recent seasons. In the big games, when the demands are huge, they have struggled. But that has been in cup finals and in Europe and each time they stumbled they had been up against better teams. Against Celtic and Malmo, even when they lost 5-1 to Hearts, it was a vastly superior Hearts team to this season’s.

But that was where the pressure lay. Having restored some pride in the capital head-to-head last term, going through the campaign unbeaten, they came unstuck in August when they travelled to Tynecastle for the first time since their neighbours had been placed into administration. This was supposed to be the night when they made amends.

That early-season defeat had piled the pressure on manager Pat Fenlon, a run of results which included one defeat in nine had alleviated a lot of that, but a poor showing against Aberdeen on Saturday had invited anxiety back through the front door.

Hibs captain James McPake had laughed off the idea raised by Hearts assistant manager Billy Brown that defeat would prove more damaging to Fenlon and his players. He insisted that in a derby, in the League Cup, with a semi-final place at stake, the pressure was on both sides.

For the opening half-hour the pressure was firmly on the visitors and that was because they were unable or unwilling to press their hosts. The gaping holes in midfield were there for Hibs to exploit as Hearts were pegged back, struggling to clear their lines.

The shots rained in, there were misses, there were blocks and there were saves but there was not the breakthrough Hibs’ play merited at that stage.

There were doubts at that stage about Hearts, though. A young side operating under phenomenal day to day pressures, they have failed to deliver at key moments, in league matches against nearest rivals St Mirren and then Kilmarnock when the value of a win was magnified beyond the usual ‘six-pointer’. But as they had demonstrated in previous rounds, the pressure of a knockout contest is something they thrive on. This time they didn’t have to rely on extra time and penalties.

Ryan Stevenson’s goal 33 minutes into the game gave them something to scrap for and they raised the tempo and switched the pressure back onto their opponents.

Hibs continued to create the greater number of chances but the time they had to try to convert them was cut as Hearts chased and harried. And the more they did that, the more the home crowd howled their agonised protests.

And as Callum Paterson, the man who grabbed the winner the last time the teams met, closed in on Ben Williams’ penalty box looking for the goal that would kill this one off too, McPake, of all people, allowed the pressure to get to him, lunging in with a reckless tackle, which earned him a red card and a red face.

Pressure is a funny thing. For some it manifests itself in determination, in others it ends up looking awfully like desperation. McPake was right, there’s no such thing as a pressure-free derby but on the night, Hearts weathered it and found a way to use it. A frustrated Hibs, again, folded in the face of it.