Neil Lennon and Craig Levein have never been ones to shy away from anything. As players, no tackle was shirked and now, as managers, neither is afraid to speak his mind no matter the fall-out.
The verbal jousts between Hibs boss Lennon and his Hearts counterpart have added a new dimension, as if one was needed, to the hype which surrounds the Edinburgh derby.
Damning Hearts as “irrelevant” as his side opened up a yawning gap between them and their capital rivals last season was a jibe by Lennon that was countered by Levein claiming the “natural order” had been restored after the Gorgie outfit had knocked Hibs out of the Scottish Cup.
Those words were rammed down his throat by goals from Scott Allan and Jamie Maclaren the next time the two teams met only for Levein to hit back after Hearts won the final derby, claiming that knocking Hibs out of the cup and ending their hopes of finishing second in the league did, after all, make Hearts “relevant”.
Easter Road defender Darren McGregor insists that, for all their spats, deep down the pair actually like each other, an observation undoubtedly supported by Lennon’s concern for Levein when he suffered heart problems, reciprocated after the Northern Irishman had been struck in the face by a coin at Tynecastle.
“It’s all part of the game,” he said. “You get rivalries whether it’s the players or managers. It’s maybe a bit of showmanship, both managers want to win, they are both feisty in their own right – so it’s great.
“As long as it stays on the park, in the confines of the game, it’s great because it motivates us and the fans.”
As a lifelong Hibs supporter himself, McGregor admitted it’s these clashes with the Tynecastle outfit which get the heart racing. He said: “I enjoy the rivalry, the fans love it. The build-up to it is why you are in the game, to play at great stadiums against your arch enemies and stuff. That’s why football is such a great game.”
Both Hibs and Hearts have emerged from long winless runs with confidence restored. Lennon’s players are undefeated in six, including three matches against either side of the Old Firm, while their rivals clocked up only their second victory in 11 games by beating Hamilton on Boxing Day. The fact that despite that record Hearts go into tomorrow’s match four points better off than Hibs is, insisted McGregor, testament to the whirlwind start to the season Levein’s players enjoyed when they lost only one of their opening 11 league matches.
The 32-year-old said: “I think it shows how they started that they are still where they are after such a poor run. But we went through the same thing ourselves, we went seven games without a win. They are a good team, a dangerous team, and the games between us since I came to Hibs have been really tight. I’d imagine it will be the same again.”
While Hearts sit fifth in the table and Hibs three places below them, McGregor is adamant that, after a summer overhaul following the loss of key players such as John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Allan, Lennon’s side are moving in the right direction. However, he concedes their cause would be helped if they could turn draws into wins. Hibs have drawn eight games so far, more than any other team in the top flight and, while happy to be six matches unbeaten, four of them have ended in stalemate.
McGregor, who scored Hibs’ late equaliser against Rangers on Boxing Day, said: “The league position we’re in is not ideal – we’d like to be higher up the table. I think we’re doing the right things and that’s us unbeaten in six, albeit we’ve only won a couple of games. We’re not far away. We are definitely working towards something and hopefully going to Ibrox and coming away with a point gives us confidence to take into the weekend.
“We could definitely be doing more in games to either see them out or to win. There’s been some instances of slackness – from myself as well – that’s caused us to lose goals. It’s something we are working on. We believe we are a good side and obviously going to Ibrox and getting a draw, drawing at home against Rangers and beating Celtic gives us confidence. But we should definitely be doing more to win games.”