Craig Halkett on how life at Hearts is finally living up to expectations as he targets 'extra special' derby win

Coming through the youth ranks at Rangers, when Craig Halkett imagined playing in table-topping derbies, it was the Old Firm head to head he thought of.

But, on Sunday, he and his Hearts team-mates face up to capital rivals Hibs for the honour of leading the Premiership.

“It’s not often you see that,” acknowledged the Gorgie defender. “In fact, I can’t remember that happening before. I know it’s still early in the season but it does give it even more importance. That’s where both clubs will want to be. I know, at Hearts, we’re a club that wants to be challenging the Old Firm as much as we can. We all know that Hearts’ and Hibs’ finances are very different from the two Glasgow teams but we have started the season well and we are in a position to move top and we want to stay there as long as we can.”

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In only the second year that both capital clubs were in Scotland’s top division, there was a similar jostle for top spot. That was in 1896-97 and they met on the final day of that league campaign. Hearts emerged 1-0 winners and took the title.

Hearts' Craig Halkett celebrates with Aaron Hickey as they enjoy derby success over rivals Hibs at Easter Road. Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS GroupHearts' Craig Halkett celebrates with Aaron Hickey as they enjoy derby success over rivals Hibs at Easter Road. Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group
Hearts' Craig Halkett celebrates with Aaron Hickey as they enjoy derby success over rivals Hibs at Easter Road. Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group

Since then there have been hundreds of meetings but, while every one has been used by one side of the divide or the other to make a case for superiority, few have presented the victors with such lofty positioning.

“It is early doors but I don't think that takes away from how good the start has been. We have been working hard in training and, come the games, that hard work has been paying off. It is about keeping that going and it makes the weekend more interesting because both teams have a lot to play for. We want the bragging rights and we want to do well for all the fans. It is the biggest games of the season, playing your biggest rivals, so all the players want to stay up the top of the table and give the fans something to be happy about.”

Rediscovering some cheer after a testing two seasons, this was what Halkett thought he had signed up for when he joined the Tynecastle club in the summer of 2019.

“Exactly that! I spoke when I first signed for Hearts and I said that was why I had signed, to be challenging up near the top of the table and getting to cup finals and semi finals and pushing on for Europe.

“This is what I expected when I signed. This is where the club should be and obviously everything is going really well just now so we want to keep it like that.”

Compared to his initial aspirations, his introduction to life at Tynecastle could not have been more disappointing as he endured the lowest point of his career. He started the season well but sustained the first serious injury of his career. That sidelined him for a couple of months and affected the team. Rushing back sooner than he probably should did neither any favours. The side’s poor form turned his debut season into a form of purgatory, and results ultimately made it possible for their rivals and peers to demote them when the pandemic prematurely brought play to a halt.

There was the frustration and the uncertainty that came with that and the long lockdown months at home with just box sets to distract him from the discomfiture and what ifs. Along with the financial blow and the repercussions, there was then the pressure to ensure the club bounced straight back.

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But, describing it as “character-building”, there were chinks of light at the end of the tunnel. The previous season’s delayed Scottish Cup semi-final against city foes Hibs gave them something to celebrate last term, as they defied the respective league standings. It was Halkett’s fourth capital derby and his third win.

“People talk about cup games being a one-off but against your biggest rivals, form can always go out the window. Thankfully, in the majority of the ones I have been involved in we have got the better of them but everyone is always up for it on both sides and I think this will be a tasty game.”

The 26-year-old centre-back has yet to win one at home, though. A Martin Boyle double denied him in his only Gorgie head-to-head. But he relishes the memories of Aaron Hickey’s joy at netting the late winner at Easter Road and then the 3-1 victory when they returned to Leith.

Then there was that Hampden semi-final.

“The main thing that helps is having people at the club who know how much it means because it really does mean a lot.

“The players know that when they head into these games. They are playing for themselves, the team and to win the points but everyone is made aware of just how massive it is for the fans.”

Each triumph thus far has been worth savouring. So too, he says, is life at Hearts these days.

“It always is, but especially when we are doing so well. This one would be extra special, with the full house, if I get to celebrate a derby win in front of the home fans.”

A strong transfer window has bolstered the team and, playing alongside a fit-again John Souttar, a player who Halkett feels at ease beside, the bonus of a fairly settled backline, with complementary strengths and weaknesses, has made life more enjoyable and provided a foundation on which to build.

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“Having just had the international break it was good to sit back and think about where we are and how far we’ve come. We can enjoy it but we have to keep striving to keep it going.”

This early, unlike the meeting in 1897, nothing is season-defining, but after the past couple of years Halkett knows how quickly momentum - good and bad - can build.

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