Andy Driver eyes return to Parkhead podium

IN THE absence of Old Firm fixtures, the head-to-heads between Celtic and Hearts could be as good as it gets for the Glasgow side domestically. Antipathy in the stands and tension on the pitch have been ramped up in recent years and, while much of that has been down to hot-headed and senseless off-field incidents, on the park there has also been plenty to stoke the fires.

Last season, Hearts ended Celtic’s hopes of a league and cup double, dumping them out of the Scottish Cup in the dying seconds of the semi-final courtesy of a disputed penalty.

But that was only the most recent slaying of ambitions. While Tynecastle has been the happier hunting ground for the capital side, they have travelled to the east end of Glasgow and upset the odds on a few memorable occasions, at least as far as Andy Driver is concerned. “I have won a few at Parkhead, although there have also been a few drubbings as well,” he recalls.

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But heading to Glasgow for this afternoon’s first meeting of the season, the focus is on the positives for the Hearts winger. “I remember some good nights there,” he says. “We beat them in the CIS Cup and we also won on the last day of the season when they were celebrating getting the league trophy.”

That was April 2007 and, while there have been draws and even knockout victories since then, it remains the last time Hearts enjoyed an away victory over Celtic in the SPL.

Memories of their afternoon as party poopers are still savoured by Driver and serve as a reminder that, despite their greater strength in depth, the defending champions are not infallible on their own turf.

“I would have to say the one when we beat them 3-1 in 2007 is special,” says Driver. “I scored that day and it was the first real time I had been to Celtic Park. It was a massive experience and one I won’t forget.”

It hasn’t always been so special. The first trip to Parkhead the following season ended in one of those drubbings Driver referred to. A 5-0 spanking. It wasn’t enough to destroy the Hearts spirit, though, and they retaliated by heading back to Glasgow in October that year and ousting Celtic from the League Cup, courtesy of an Andrius Velicka double.

“We also won there a couple of years later when Stephen McManus was sent off,” says Driver. “You can still find that tackle on YouTube if you type in ‘the latest tackle ever’.”

In between those cup triumphs there was also a draw in the league, thanks to another Driver goal. Such a big ground with such a vocal support has at times proved intimidating, with some Hearts players’ insecurities being as influential as the home team in one-sided contests.

But, this term, Celtic have shown that they have chinks in their armour and teams who have adopted the right approach have profited, with St Johnstone grabbing all three points at McDiarmid Park and Hibs managing to snatch a share of the spoils at Parkhead.

Driver believes that Hearts can relieve Celtic of more home points today but knows that inconsistency is a problem that has dogged both teams in the opening stages of the current domestic campaign.

“Everybody expected Celtic to run away with the league but that hasn’t been the case so far and we can take confidence from that,” says Driver. “The league has been extremely competitive this year and no team can rest on their laurels.”

That said, he is relishing a run-out at Celtic Park, suggesting that the pitch dimensions may help the visitors, provided Hearts can be a bit more clinical in front of goal than they have been in other matches this season.

“The fact that it is a big pitch and there is more space has helped me,” says Driver. “I have fond memories and I am looking forward to going back. Hopefully there will be some more [memories]. The key is keeping it tight at the back and not being afraid to have a go. We have guys like Arvydas Novikovas and Callum Paterson and they have a lot of pace on the counter.

“We have to be confident and the longer you go without allowing them to score the better. You have to ride your luck and we did that a bit when we beat them in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup last year.”

Getting nearer and nearer to his best, 24-year-old Driver has put a couple of seasons of injury setbacks behind him. He says he hasn’t missed a training session this season. “It’s now about getting confidence. When confidence is high you do things naturally and go past players as if they were not there. When it is low you hesitate.”

Describing this season as “massive” on a personal level, he is desperate to recapture the form which had other clubs vying for him, the international manager eyeing him up for a cap and his current employers offering him good money to hang around Gorgie. Out of contract at the end of the season, with finances at Tynecastle tight, he knows he has to make a good impression if he is to have any hopes of replicating his current terms.

“I have to perform to my abilities and get back my form if I want a contract,” he admits. “On the wages I am on at the moment I need to get back to the player I was two years ago. Personally I don’t think I am that far away. The confidence is coming back and I am getting better but I have got to keep going and get a run of games together. The start of the season has been disappointing but if I start playing well then I might get a new deal, a good offer and I might get a call-up [to the Scotland side]. But none of that will come if I don’t do well.”

But it won’t be easy against Celtic if they play the way they did against Spartak Moscow in midweek. Driver watched that match, as did Hearts manager John McGlynn, but both still feel that Hearts can do a job.

Having been around Hearts through very different eras, McGlynn says that teams maybe travel to Parkhead with more hope and expectation these days. “I wouldn’t want to be derogatory in any way but when you look back at maybe Craig Levein’s era or Jim Jefferies’, you’re looking at being up against maybe [Henrik] Larsson, [Chris] Sutton, [Lubomir] Moravcik, [John] Hartson and possibly Paul Lambert, Alan Thompson, Neil Lennon, Stilian Petrov. You can go on and on and while I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anyone because I think the players they’ve got now could turn out to be even better, that still remains to be seen.

“This season you’ve seen St Johnstone beating Celtic and Celtic dropping points up in Dingwall, so you think maybe there are flaws there. Then they get their best result in Europe the other night. So, who’s to say that this Celtic team don’t end up being the best Celtic team. You’ve had the Martin O’Neill era, the Gordon Strachan era, where they had a lot of success, but who knows where this team will go after such a great result the other night.”

They will be alive with self-belief. Hearts’ job is to somehow contain that while also bouncing back from their own issues. If they are looking for positives, the past has proved they can do it.