LITTLE can match the stinging memory of a 5-1 defeat in the Scottish Cup final. However, when placed in context, the Hibernian supporters clearly found this defeat to Hearts just as hard to accept, as a post-match protest against manager Pat Fenlon served to illustrate.
Scorer: Hearts - Stevenson (34)
Derby opponents who were meant to be downcast and dispirited after six defeats in their past seven outings returned to winning ways in the most perfect setting imaginable.
Their reward is a place in the last four of the League Cup, with all the financial benefits that will entail.
Hibs fans were particularly alarmed by the degree of comfort with which Hearts prevailed – something not reflected by the narrow scoreline. The depth of dismay they felt was deepened by the knowledge that they had looked so completely in control in the opening stages. Hearts soaked up this pressure thanks to an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and then hit their opponents on the counter attack through Ryan Stevenson’s first-half opener.
Hibs were simply unable to recover. They were not helped in their efforts by the red card shown to skipper James McPake after 82 minutes for a lunge on Callum Paterson. In truth, Hearts already looked well on course for their second derby victory of the season.
After the psychological warfare that took place on the eve of the fixture, it was refreshing to focus on what was the real test of both teams’ mettle. Hearts took the honours on the pitch after the verbal toing-and-froing of 24 hours earlier.
As many had suspected might be the case, Stevenson was pushed into action despite suffering a knee injury against Kilmarnock on Saturday. He played with heavy strapping on his right thigh and, while clearly not 100 per cent fit, succeeding in doing far more than simply make a nuisance of himself.
In what was a commendably proactive tactical alteration made by manager Gary Locke, Stevenson was switched from midfield to centre forward just before the half-hour mark after almost constant Hibs pressure. Fewer than five minutes later he had changed the course of the game.
Prior to that, Hibs had looked in the mood to sweep Hearts away. That they didn’t in the end must again mean that uncomfortable questions have to be asked of the Easter Road management. That in itself seems remarkable because, for the opening 20 minutes last night Hibs looked as good as they ever have done under Fenlon.
For Hearts, responsibility was heaped on the experienced trio of Stevenson, Jamie Hamill and MacDonald. On those few occasions when Hearts were given time to do something with the ball, the onus fell on Stevenson and Hamill to ensure that they did not lose it. Their younger, rawer team-mates threatened to be overwhelmed by the one-way traffic that swept towards them and the Hearts supporters packed into the away end behind the goal.
Billy Brown, the Hearts assistant manager, and Locke urged their men forward. But there was little the players could do but defend as though their lives depended on it.
MacDonald needed to be at his most inspired to deal with the shots that peppered his goal. Brown, for one, might have reflected on the wisdom of his pre-match comments. There was likely to have been more newsprint on the walls of the home dressing room than on the shelves of the local newsagents. Hibs were underachievers, the headlines screamed. For the money they have spent, they should be higher than seventh in the league, opined Brown.
It was perfect motivational material – or at least it should have been.
The player whose transfer fee illustrated this supposedly significant outlay started in attack for Hibs. Alongside James Collins was Rowan Vine, someone else with plenty left to prove.
It was Fenlon’s hope that they would use last night’s match to kickstart their Hibs careers in the absence of the cup-tied Paul Heffernan. Few players have been given such optimal conditions in which to secure a place in the hearts of supporters who needed some convincing about their worth. Sadly for them, they failed to take the opportunity.
As Hibs poured forward, it seemed impossible that Vine and Collins would not be given the chance to prove a point by scoring a goal. Somehow, the ball refused to drop for them.
Instead, Paul Hanlon saw a header bash back off a post and then Scott Robertson was thwarted on two occasions by fine saves by MacDonald. The second of those, after 15 minutes, which saw the goalkeeper somehow manage to deflect the ball on to the woodwork was particularly thrilling. Robertson slumped to the turf in disbelief.
Collins was similarly dismayed to see the goalkeeper dive to his left to save his powerful shot just four minutes later as Hibs threatened to run riot. But significantly, the threat remained just that – a threat.
Indeed, as Hearts finally established some control over the proceedings, the home side’s threat then began to recede quite alarmingly. Instead, Hearts began to look capable of snatching something.
Stevenson let fly with a shot that landed in the side-netting. Having found his range, he felt confident when latching onto Jamie Walker’s lay-off after a poor clearing header from McPake. Stevenson’s powerfully hit shot from 20 yards crashed into the net and caused an outbreak of extended delirium in the away end. A maroon coloured flare was also thrown on to the side of the pitch, causing the restart to be delayed.
The Hibs fans had to endure the sight of Hearts fans continuing to celebrate through the haze as half-time neared. The remaining minutes did little but strengthen the perception that the visitors had now survived the storm and were intent on making more than just sporadic sorties up field.
Collins was the first to pay the price for Hibs’ struggle to reclaim the domination they had enjoyed in the opening stages. He made way for Ross Caldwell after 63 minutes.
Kevin McHattie had already forced Ben Williams into making a save low to his left as the game began to adopt a more familiar derby pattern of end-to-end football.
The home fans were clearly growing more and more agitated by the sight of a supposedly downtrodden Hearts side growing in confidence and belief. MacDonald performed one more outstanding save to deny Liam Craig before Hibs’ hopes of at least forcing extra time became yet more desperate after McPake earned his red card for an over-the-top tackle on Paterson with eight minutes left.
Referee: W Collum