Mind the gap
Courtesy of this triumph at Easter Road, Hearts are now on a nine-derby unbeaten run against their rivals. Given 11 points separate the two clubs in the cinch Premiership and we are only in January, these stats are great reading for Jambos and grim viewing for Hibbies. While Hearts continue to go from strength to strength, Hibs are at best standing still. Some would even argue they are regressing. Hibs played well on Sunday and had sustained periods of dominance but were largely unable to pierce a rock-solid Hearts back three and when they did, they did not take their chances. Hearts were clinical, and simply have more winners in their ranks right now. The depth of their squad paid off – being able to bring on Stephen Kingsley and Stephen Humphrys helped steady the second-half ship – and with the finances at Tynecastle in rude health due to their European run, they have more muscle flex in the transfer market. Recruitment in Gorgie under the watch of Joe Savage has largely been spot-on; recruitment in Leith has largely been off-piste. The gap between these two clubs right now is big. Not quite a yawning chasm, but so much work needs done at Easter Road if they are to redress the balance in Edinburgh. A new director of football will be appointed in the summer and that will go some way to starting the reconstruction work.
Well played, Robbie
Until Sunday, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson’s record at Easter Road was poor. His away derby performances in charge of the club have been used by a section of the support as a stick to beat him with. This was his first victory at Hibs’ stadium as a manager, which is quite a remarkable stat given how well the club has done generally under his watch. Neilson has evolved as a manager this season, clearly taking on the experiences of playing in Europe and finishing third and reaching the Scottish Cup final in 2021/22. His team are well-organised, well coached and understand what it means to play for Hearts. Neilson also got his substitutions bang on the money against Hibs, identifying quickly enough in the second half that Alex Cochrane was struggling with Elie Youan down Hearts’ left and replacing him with Kingsley, while bringing on Humphrys for Josh Ginnelly allowed the team to keep the ball higher up the pitch and better link-up with Lawrence Shankland. In the Jambos’ last visit to their neighbours, Neilson was rightly criticised for his tactics and changes when defending a 1-0 lead and Hibs scored a very late equaliser. No such scenario this time.
Going one step further
Hearts defender Toby Sibbick was unequivocal when asked about the club’s ambitions in the Scottish Cup this year. Do you want to go one step further than last season, when they lost 2-0 to Rangers in the final at Hampden? “Yeah, that's a target we set out before the season,” the goalscoring defender said. They have struggling Championship outfit Hamilton Accies, away from home, next and they will be warm favourites to progress into the quarter-finals. Hearts have been in three of the past Scottish Cup finals but on each occasion have come a cropper against one half of the Old Firm (Celtic twice, Rangers once). This club is now making trips to Hampden habitual and the next step is to go one step further and get their hands on some major silverware for the first time since 2012. On current form, they are one of the teams to avoid when the competition reaches the latter stages.
This has not been a good season for Hibs on the fitness front. Much has been about the size of their squad, but it’s been needed due to a busy treatment room (Hearts have also had injuries too – Craig Gordon, Kingsley, Craig Halkett, Andy Halliday, Peter Haring, Beni Baningime, Gary Mackay-Steven and Liam Boyce – but have dealt with them better) Before Sunday, the list of players who have been missing for prolonged periods of times in 2022/23 read: Lewis Miller, Paul Hanlon, Rocky Bushiri, Kyle Magennis, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Kevin Nisbet, Demetri Mitchell, Aiden McGeady, Martin Boyle and Mykola Kukharevych. All those players, when fully fit, would be in the first-team squad. And after the defeat by Hearts, the injury news was not particularly good either. Bushiri has a suspected broken leg following a late challenge on Cammy Devlin and manager Lee Johnson admitted that Magennis will be out for a few weeks with another unspecified injury. Johnson has been far from flawless this season but he has been dealt a right rough hand with some of the absences to key players that he’s had to contend with in his first season as Hibs manager.
Iain Matthews applause
This derby really was at its boiling point come the hour mark, with Hibs putting Hearts under real pressure as they searched for an equaliser. However, all four corners of Easter Road rose and applauded on 61 minutes to pay tribute to Hibs fan Iain Matthews, who tragically died at Easter Road nine days ago during the home match against Dundee United at the age of 61. It was lovely to see the vast majority of Hearts fans paying their respects and it was a reminder that while the Edinburgh derby can have its occasional poisonous moments, football is only just a game and that capital rivalries are rightly set aside for matters such as this.