Denied his chance to play in a Steel City derby, Paul Heckingbottom wasted no time in knocking on his manager’s door to complain. But the Hibernian head coach doesn’t expect any of the men he sidelines for today’s Edinburgh head-to-head to show up at his office. If they do, they can expect to be sent packing.
“The difference is I didn’t deserve to be left out. That’s the difference,” he said as he recalled his own derby disappointment during his playing days at Sheffield Wednesday more than a decade ago.
“I was dropped and [the manager] Paul Sturrock fell out with me. I haven’t forgiven him. I like him but that’s my one thing.
“He left me out of that game and I chapped on his door when I found out I wasn’t playing. It is still my one regret at Wednesday, that I didn’t play in that game.
“We got the promotion, then I left and I’ve played in Yorkshire derbies, the East Anglian one, the north-east one.”
The fact that Heckingbottom does not believe there will be anyone with cause for complaint if they are left spectating today says a lot about the form Hibernian are in, with few players making a case for automatic inclusion and the team struggling to get into a winning rhythm.
Five games in, they have won only once. That was on the opening day. Since then they have drawn one, lost three, scoring only three goals and conceding 13.
On the back of only one win in seven at the tail end of last season, and what many regard as an uninspiring summer transfer window, it has triggered disquiet in the stands, with some fans already suggesting that the manager, who only joined the club in February, should be replaced.
This afternoon’s derby gifts Heckingbottom and his players the opportunity to revise the mood in the ground, by scoring the second derby win of his tenure to move up the standings and leave rivals Hearts rooted at the foot of the league table.
“You are always under pressure,” he said. “Derbies bring pressure, playing in cup finals, chasing promotion, fighting relegation, everything brings its own pressure but it is part of the job. Everyone copes with it differently but I put everything into perspective. I focus on us and how we want to win the game.”
Hurt by being too soft at one end and not clinical enough at the other, the task is in finding a way to address one, without it compromising the other even further. But it is all about finding a way, any way, of winning, according to the Easter Road boss, who, having brought in so many new faces in the summer, always expected it to take time to gel.
Whether in control of a match against lesser opponents or digging deep to snatch something from a team who have been on top, Heckingbottom says no game demands the players grind out victory more than a derby and he wants the fans to play their part today.
“By kick-off I want everyone pulling together and I am sure we will. I have mentioned the 12th man before but I want [the fans] to be the extra man for us. We have seen it before in derbies how crucial our fans can be and we want that. The backing is so important for the players and they want to be energised by that.”
Competitive and played at a ferocious tempo, it will be en eye-opener for some of the new faces. With some supporters already of the opinion that a number of the new arrivals, along with their boss, have under-estimated the Scottish game and failed to consider certain nuances, or the specific demands of how Hibs fans want to see their teams play, they will expect to see something in return for their backing.
But, regardless of geography or the league, Heckingbottom says one constant is the desire for a derby win.
“One of the nastiest ones I played in was Darlington against Hartlepool when I was a youngster starting out. That was nasty.
“I remember we had to walk through the Hartlepool fans to get to the dressing rooms and they got to us in the tunnel. There was a big fight at half-time between Darlington players and Hartlepool fans.
“You’re talking 20 years ago, maybe a bit more than that. But I had played in a few [derbies] by then. You grow up with them because they mean everything at youth level as well.
“Even in schoolboy football you play in big games. At [Manchester] United you go there as a scholar and you play City. It doesn’t matter if it’s under 16s, 18s, the A team, B team, reserves – the big games have a different feel to them. You want to win and it’s good experience. You’re brought up in it and with it. It’s part of what you do and what you enjoy and you don’t realise how much you miss those games until you can’t play in them.”