With the wrecking ball set to swing here, crunching debris is a good metaphor for this game, the last Edinburgh derby to be played in front of Tynecastle’s old main stand. Neither side was prepared to give an inch. Nor did they seem burdened by a responsibility to be entertaining.
A television audience might have groaned but this hard-fought stalemate was hardly an unexpected outcome. Hibs’ unbeaten run against their rivals stretches to six matches. They will hope they can replicate last season’s success by completing the task at Easter Road after securing a draw in Gorgie.
That 2-2 draw, for all that it upset Hearts supporters after their side threw away a two-goal lead, contained more drama in its last ten minutes than featured in the entire 90 yesterday.
Risking no repeat of the criticism levelled at him when letting slip his surprise at the date of Hearts’ replay v Raith Rovers in the last round, Ian Cathro will have already circled Wednesday 22 February in his diary.
This is when Hearts have a second chance to wrestle Hibs’ hands off the Scottish Cup after failing to do so here. Not that the current head coach is entirely culpable for the run, but it wouldn’t do for Hearts’ win-less run to stretch to a seventh match – unless, of course, they can prevail on penalties in ten days’ time.
Neither sides’ cause was helped by the state of the pitch. An Edinburgh derby can be agricultural at the best of times, so this obstacle to the prospect of attractive football was a ruinous additional factor.
Indeed, it was a perfect storm of anti-football ingredients. Squalls of sleet and gusts of wind combined with the difficult underfoot conditions. Both teams seemed set up for a bruising battle from the outset.
Neil Lennon emerged the more satisfied manager on his first return to a Tynecastle dug-out since his time at Celtic. Hibs were robust, something that isn’t always the case when they come to this ground.
James Keatings featured at the head of a midfield diamond with John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie either side of him. Marvin Bartley patrolled the area in front of the defence and was a candidate for man of the match. It says everything when one of the game’s principal performers is a sitting midfielder. The identity of Hearts’ best player emphasised this point. Alexandros Tziolis, playing in the same role as Bartley, was perhaps their most accomplished performer.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hearts shelved their recent policy of playing with two strikers, Bjorn Johnsen dropping to the bench. Still, their aims, as the home team, seemed slightly more ambitious than those of the opposition. Both Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker started on the flanks with the presumable intention Hearts might avoid being bogged down in a midfield war of attrition. If so, it was a forlorn hope.
Hibs’ primary target, it seemed, was to avoid being bullied. Grant Holt certainly added presence and seemed to relish his maiden Edinburgh derby experience, merrily playing up to the comments aimed at him – and more specifically his waistband size – from the home stands.
Another Edinburgh debutant, Tziolis, sought to bring some composure to the potted terrain in midfield, which was the definition of optimism. But he drew on his experience. The Greek’s ability to adapt spoke of years playing at the highest level, for his international side and various clubs.
But one of the few times he was careless enough to be dispossessed almost led to a goal, Keatings profiting and releasing Jason Cummings down the right. The striker’s shot was parried out by Jack Hamilton and then hit off Holt, rebounding back into the grateful keeper’s arms.
Keatings was clearly instructed to prove a menace for Tziolis, while Holt busied himself with irritating the Hearts backline. The idea was for Cummings to feed off scraps but even someone with his capabilities struggled to find room for himself.
The best chance for either side fell for Esmael Goncalves, pictured, in the opening two minutes after good work from Walker. The Portugese striker’s effort was well blocked by the returning Hibs keeper Ofir Marciano.
Such a high-octane start meant the paltry fare that followed was particularly disappointing. Holt should have made contact with a precisely placed Keatings cross from the left shortly afterwards. A Darren McGregor foul on Don Cowie, which left the Hearts skipper badly winded and earned the culprit a booking, was more representative of the 90 minutes.
The second half was even more barren than the first. Hearts’ Malaury Martin was withdrawn at half-time – this was no place for a French sophisticate, clearly. Johnsen, his replacement, made an immediate impact when winning a high ball for Goncalves, who took too long to shoot. Hearts had upped the ante briefly, Johnsen seeing a shot saved by Marciano’s foot before Walker was thwarted by a fine saving block from McGregor, one of those whole-hearted players who, like Holt, was clearly stimulated by this type of rugged occasion.
It wasn’t such a fertile environment for the skilful Nicholson. Arnaud Djoum replaced the Hearts winger after 65 minutes, swapping Gabon for Gorgie seven days after helping Cameroon lift the Africa Cup of Nations title. But there was no glory here for either side, just the bruises to show for an afternoon of all-out endeavour. While this hardly whets the appetite for the replay, one heartening thought is that it can’t be any worse.