Hearts defence ready to continue proud derby record

IF defending is an art then Hearts are the masters of Edinburgh derbies at Tynecastle, where Hibs have scored just two goals in five years. Parts of the Gorgie venue may be somewhat dilapidated but its red-brick facade represents the outer wall of a fortress where those from Easter Road experience the utmost frugality from their hosts.

Hearts’ miserliness when the neighbours come to visit stretches back to Brian Kerr’s winning goal in the opening game of season 2007/08. Since then, only Derek Riordan has bulged the net at Tynecastle for Hibs – a match-winning penalty in May 2009 followed by a consolation strike in a 2-1 defeat for his team the following March.

With Riordan currently clubless, Hibs’ scoring prospects are brought sharply into focus ahead of this weekend’s derby. Tynecastle is known as one of Scotland’s most hostile venues where even the most courageous opponent can become intimidated. Statistics show that Hearts’ defence, whenever derby day comes round, generally gives no quarter. Hibs can consider themselves lucky to get a post-match cup of tea.

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Hearts’ resistance can be put down to any combination of things. Adrenalin is higher than normal during derbies with bragging rights at stake as well as league points. Hearts have been physically stronger and better organised in defence than Hibs in recent years. Hearts have often been pursuing a European place and, to that end, may have been more motivated for the task at hand.

But there is no doubt that a special, perhaps unique, mentality exists within the Tynecastle squad when it comes to facing their city rivals. The “thou shalt not pass” approach has served them well for five years and is likely to be a central feature of Sunday’s gameplan.

For Hibs players, simply stepping off the team coach onto McLeod Street can prompt trepidation. “It does intimidate people,” admitted Dave McPherson, who experienced Tynecastle as both a home and away player during spells with Hearts and Rangers.

“All you need to do is travel to Tynecastle as an away player. It’s a difficult place to get to, you need to park the bus on the street, then you need to get through the Hearts fans and into the ground. It’s not like you can park right outside the door, like at Parkhead or Ibrox, and just take a step to get in the main door. You are aware of the volatility of the place and the substantial home support. That definitely has an effect.

“It depends on the player how they handle it. Hibs have one or two guys who have just signed who maybe won’t be used to that atmosphere in a derby match. They will be aware of Hibs’ record at Tynecastle because it’s not great. The home support give you such an advantage in a derby match. I remember playing at Tynecastle before the new stands were up and it was such an intimidating atmosphere even then. A lot of away teams were railroaded early on and Hearts use that to their advantage. A lot of teams don’t cope with it.

“It’s important Hearts start the game well and don’t give them time to settle, try to take the game to them. I would think Hearts will feel they have a wee hold over Hibs, especially when they are at home. They have that advantage of the home support and, with Hibs’ track record, you can’t help but feel confident about Hearts getting a result and not losing any goals. If I was managing Hearts, I’d be having a go at Hibs to try and get that early goal. That makes it difficult for them and in a way you don’t need to worry about your defence.

“Hibs aren’t losing as many goals as they were so maybe they’ve turned the corner a bit. If they are reminded of their record there, it’s not going to help them. They are playing a little bit better but they don’t have the stats on their side.”

For all the statistics are weighted heavily in favour of the hosts, there is little chance of Hearts underestimating their rivals. “Defensively, Hearts have always had a good side but I don’t think they will take Hibs lightly,” continued McPherson. “I spoke to a couple of Hearts players the other day and they were disappointed not to get through in the cup at the weekend. Craig Beattie, since he’s joined, looks like he’s going to be an asset up front.”

Defensively, there will be at least one change for Hearts following Sunday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final with St Mirren. Manager Paulo Sergio must reorganise his back line with captain Marius Zaliukas suspended. Darren Barr appears the most likely candidate to partner Andy Webster at centre-back whilst, on the right, Jamie Hamill is available again after serving a one-game ban against St Mirren. It remains to be seen whether he is restored to the starting line-up in place of Ryan McGowan.

From the last defensive line which faced Hibs at Tynecastle back in August, only Webster and Danny Grainger seem certain to start on Sunday with goalkeeper Marian Kello frozen out. “If your captain is out he is always going to be difficult to replace,” admitted McPherson. “Hearts do have a number of players who can come in and cover for Zaliukas and do every bit as good a job. The balance needs to be right, I think that’s more important than the quality of player. In any big match you want your experienced players to play.

“Ryan McGowan can play a number of positions, including centre-back, and gets forward from full-back well. The question is, do you want to move him from there into the centre of defence when he gives you a lot going forward? I think Barr could be the best option in the middle.”

Whoever is deployed will be aware of the desire for another clean sheet. Hearts have conceded eight goals in their last four matches in all competitions. With Hibs crossing the city, it is a particularly apt time to rediscover the defensive resolve. McPherson believes attack may actually be the best form of defence this time round.

“If Hearts score first you would expect them to win. I feel they are too strong for Hibs, especially at home. If they do get the goal, with the way Hibs record is, it’s only going to increase Hearts’ confidence. The most important thing in a derby is making sure you don’t fall behind early on. Hearts carry more scoring threat now with the recent changes.”