Tuesday night under the lights, mild with no wind, small boys getting to stay up late after their first day back at school, the streets around the ground thrumming with feverish anticipation – it was a rare night for football but would we see any?
There was just time before kick-off at Easter Road to have a wee word with Alex Cropley. “Oh I hope so,” he said. All the pre-match talk for Edinburgh’s first derby for league points for two and a half years had been about physicality, ruggedness and how much of a battle it would be. Cropley provided silkiness when he starred for Hibernian in the 1970s but he could tackle, too. Once, with a block tackle which he admits would have got him sent off now, he broke the formidable John Greig’s toe.
Though he was too modest and polite to speculate whether any of the modern derby combatants would be able to summon memories of Sodjer in his pomp and do something meaningful, if not marvellous, with the ball once it had been won, we took this to be his drift. Well, Dylan McGeouch did. The midfielder had his best game in a Hibs shirt and was man of the match.
This actually amounted to two fine performances in a row by McGeouch following his display at Hampden last Saturday. There have been times recently when Hibs fans wondered if they were ever going to see him complete a pair of games without breaking down due to the recurrence of an old niggle.
He has lovely balance, touch and rhythm as a playmaker, but the supporters haven’t been treated to these gifts often enough. There he was on Tuesday, though, dropping the shoulder and gliding over outstretched legs, a sand dancer amid the mayhem, Sodjer’s long-lost little brother.
McGeouch didn’t dominate the 90 minutes completely. At half-time Craig Levein introduced Harry Cochrane, just 16, who clearly wasn’t part of a school visit to Easter Road, there to listen attentively to the tour guide and take notes. From the bench the youngster had watched John McGinn’s crouching-tiger routine, inviting Hearts players on to his back before invariably shrugging them off. Right away Cochrane snuck up on the Scotland man and wrestled the ball from him.
Levein regretted not playing him from the start. Maybe Cochrane wouldn’t have changed the outcome but he passed the ball better than Rafal Grzelak whom he replaced, something McGeouch quickly discerned, paying the lad the compliment of keeping an eye on him. He passed it better than Malaury Martin, anonymous in last season’s Scottish Cup clashes between the rivals. He passed it better than Miguel Pallardo, who chased shadows in the cup 12 months before that.
Understably keen to protect Cochrane, Levein was unsure about him being quite ready for the derby fray. But the kid wasn’t scared to tackle. Who knows, he may come to pause in the midst of a glittering career and reflect on the formative moment when he almost dumped John McGinn in the bottom row of the West Stand.
Despite that, it wasn’t the dirty match some had feared, or maybe hoped for. Hearts were more competitive than under Ian Cathro so at least that box was ticked. But the lack of creativity must concern the Gorgie faithful. After getting out of the Championship two seasons before their nearest and dearest, they surely would have expected the team to be at a more advanced stage of development than one requiring corners and free-kicks to be taken by a centre-back.
When Hearts used to regularly beat Hibs in the derby, the latter’s fans used to bleat about the likes of Liam Miller not getting an opportunity to demonstrate his flair because some big boys shoved him off the ball, when the truth is that more than a few in green and white simply didn’t fancy the derby. Dylan McGeouch fancied it on Tuesday and Alex Cropley must have been proud.