Previewing a match that offers money, status and entry to European qualifiers, as well as the ability to determine whether the season is considered success or failure by the men and women who fill the stands or populate forums and make decisions at boardroom level, Hearts interim boss Steven Naismith spoke of his disappointment at the blackout, describing it as part of the “bigger issue with Scottish football”.
Many, particularly those who have been unable to get briefs for the sell-out fixture, will agree. “We’ve got a TV deal and an amount of games each season don’t get covered,” said Naismith. “That’s not good enough in all honesty. I think every derby across the top level should be shown on TV whether it’s the Dundee derby, the Edinburgh derby or the Old Firm. We have got a product here that we need to push and it’s good. This game should be on telly but that’s probably a discussion for the people higher up.”
As far as nail-biting conclusions go, the footballing gods have served up a stoater, which any television screenwriter would be proud of. When the Leith outfit first-footed Hearts back on January 2, such a rip-roaring end to the campaign seemed unthinkable to anyone outwith Hibs’ East Mains training centre. Truth be told, there will have been doubters within those walls, too.
Back then Hearts were getting into their stride following their European sojourns, while Hibs were under pressure. The 3-0 home win took Hearts 11 points clear of their rivals, who were sitting in eighth and mired in a fight to make the top six. But football is never afraid to throw a spanner in the works, or conjure up a twist to the tale. Which is why there is so much drama heading into this final encounter, with the gap now just two points. “We are on the rise,” explains Hibs full-back Lewis Miller. “We know exactly what we’re going to do now. We went through a transition stage mid-season that never went too well but now we’ve flipped the switch and are going up and up.”
In the end it was Hearts who slipped up, while Hibs improved. Having survived matches billed as ‘el sackio’, Lee Johnson remains in situ and prospering, while it was Hearts gaffer Robbie Neilson who was axed just before last month’s capital derby. Hibs won that one – their first win over their rivals in nine attempts – and, given that it was Steven Naismith’s first in charge of the Gorgie side, he does not want another loss to bookend his tenure. On a day when there is so much at stake, his chances of keeping the job on a permanent basis will be heavily influenced by the action at Tynecastle.
As the minutes counted down on Wednesday night’s fixtures the final whistles at Easter Road and Ibrox, where Hibs and Hearts had been in action, could have been replaced by the Eastenders doof, doof, doofs, as it became clear that the final day would host a shoot-out for superiority and a summer of bragging rights, not to mention the additional prize money that comes with the higher finish and the guaranteed European spot.
Fifth place could still be rewarded with European qualifiers, if Celtic can defeat Inverness Caledonian Thistle in next weekend’s Scottish Cup final, but sneaking in the side door is not what either club had in mind at the start of the campaign. It would still count as improvement for a Leith side that finished eighth last term, for Hearts, there would be less chance of dressing that up. “It will be a really good game and I’m really looking forward to it,” said Johnson. “It’s great when you’re on the winning end of these games and it’s very difficult if you lose the game. But, at the same time, whatever happens, I’ll still believe it’s been a successful season, as long as we get into the European places.”
If the pressure was on Hibs in January, the heavier burden is surely on Hearts this time. Third looked to be theirs for the taking but they allowed Aberdeen to usurp them. If they were to somehow allow Hibs to do the same, on their own turf, their fans would, understandably, not be happy. “The boys are disappointed that we didn't get third but we've got a big game at the weekend,” said Jambos winger Barrie McKay, who revealed there would be a much-needed post mortem, regardless of the outcome. “After it's done we'll reflect on the full season and look back at where it went wrong and stuff like that but we need to try and be positive going into the game and get the three points. It’s two teams that are going to go for a win and are not happy for a draw. It could be a really entertaining game.”
But Hearts still have the comfort blanket, aware that while they may not be targeting a draw, it would still favour them. For the visitors it is win or bust, which offers them clarity but longer odds of succeeding. The Tynecastle crowd could be integral, with Hearts home form providing hope that they can still end the season on a high, albeit lower than they might have anticipated. “I think that definitely helps,” admitted Naismith. “The away form has been an issue and it’s something that needs to be addressed. We’ve done that slowly. But our performances at home have been really good since I took over.”
If the heat is on Hearts, Hibs have tried to remain cool, bringing a cryotherapy unit into the training ground on Thursday. On Saturday, both sets of players will need ice in their veins.