Two sweet strikes from Scott Allan and Jamie Maclaren were like diamonds in the dirt of a hard-fought Edinburgh derby to leave Hearts trailing very much in their rivals’ wake.
Whatever Craig Levein’s claims about a natural order being restored following his side’s Scottish Cup tie victory in January, there’s no doubt Hibs are enjoying superiority in the league this season.
A banner was strung out along the top tier of the Famous Five stand pointing out as much as the final whistle approached last night. “Natural Order?” it read.
Hibs, for whom Dylan McGeouch was outstanding, are now 12 points clear of their rivals down in sixth place. Hearts suddenly find themselves pitched into a worrying run of five games without a win. Levein might reflect on whether some of his pre-match comments were wise. Having been challenged to do so, Hibs kept their cool to widen the gap between themselves and their neighbours.
Levein predicted that the victorious team would be whoever could most successfully control their emotions. Both sides – indeed both managers – managed to do that for the most part.
Levein was the subject of expected ridicule from the Hibs supporters, irked, like Neil Lennon, by his recent utterances.
Flares held up the start to provide food for thought for those involved in the Friday night scheduling. It made a change for eyes to sting due to reasons other than what was happening on the pitch.
But even after the smoke cleared this sensation lingered. The two goals apart, this was an Edinburgh derby that lived up to its recent reputation for direness. Not that Hibs fans will care as they secured a second derby victory of the season in what proved, eventually, fairly straightforward fashion.
Whatever the passion involved, meetings between these sides have a habit of descending into wars of attrition. There were early signs it would be no different last night. The game, when it was allowed to begin after around four minutes’ delay, was disrupted by a series of early, niggling fouls.
It was easy to wonder whether ball players such as Allan and Harry Cochrane would be able to weave some magic amid the rumpus. In Cochrane’s case, he couldn’t. He left the pitch early on after seeming to pull a muscle.
Allan was spotted in intermittent flashes of his tangerine boots before he managed to more firmly leave his mark on the proceedings with the opener 12 minutes into the second half. It’s his first goal since rejoining the club in January.
Hearts put together the first flowing moves after 11 minutes, at the end of which Michael Smith’s shot was blocked by the arm of Darren McGregor amid some claims for a penalty.
Cochrane was then forced off after 14 minutes. The 16-year-old was replaced by another 16-year-old, Anthony McDonald. Levein certainly retained faith in his youngsters even on such a potentially explosive night. Lewis Moore, 19, also started on the left, in front of auxiliary left-back Conor Randall. The pair were clearly deployed with the pace of Martin Boyle in mind.
Marcus Godinho, meanwhile, started at right-back, with Smith perhaps surprisingly deployed in midfield. Hibs opted for three centre-halves, with Lewis Stevenson and Boyle at wing back.
The result of the tactical tinkering is that both sides seemed to simply cancel each other out at first. There’s something to be said for those who complain about managers over-thinking things. This was a match that had been played almost since the final whistle of both teams’ last outings – in Hibs’ case a fortnight ago.
John McGinn fired over after advancing inside from Allan’s short corner. Randall mis-kicked completely in front of the main stand much to the home fans’ amusement. But the closest we came to a goal in the first half was when a mix-up between keeper Ofir Marciano and McGregor almost allowed Hearts the opportunity to benefit from Godinho’s cross. The Hibs defence were grateful to clear their lines.
The second half was a mirror image of the first. Plenty of endeavour with some fleeting bursts of skills. There was thin gruel for the strikers. A tame header from Kyle Lafferty looped over in the first half. Meanwhile, Hibs’ front two of Maclaren and Florian Kamberi struggled to feed off the scraps offered.
But the latter was involved when Hibs broke the deadlock. Kamberi made progress down the left before finding Paul Hanlon on the edge of the box. The Hibs defender might have been in an unfamiliar position but he made an impact, ensuring the ball made its way to Allan. The on-loan Celtic midfielder brought the ball down and then rifled a sweetly-hit drive into the far corner, with Jon McLaughlin well beaten.
Allan’s goal ignited Hibs. Maclaren, pictured left, saw his shot from the edge of the box strike the underside of the bar and bounce back out. This time there was no debate about whether the ball had crossed the line or not.
And there was certainly no debate about Maclaren’s decisive goal with 11 minutes left. The Australian wheeled about ten yards out and struck a shot into the corner that sped past McLaughlin and secured three points for the hosts.
It was a derby victory sweetened – if that’s possible – by the knowledge Levein was made to look slightly foolish in the process.