It wasn’t the finish to the season many on either side of the Edinburgh divide might have been envisaging prior to Paul Heckingbottom’s arrival as Hibernian manager in February.
Eleven points behind their biggest rivals and more preoccupied with gaining traction in the lower half of the table, Hibs have not only managed to get a foothold, they have made a flying ascent, securing top-six status, clawing back and overhauling their capital foes by taking 20 points from 24 – and now they have admitted they are fixing their sights on a European finish, or at least trying to emulate last season’s fourth-place finish.
“We have put ourselves in this position and now we have to make the most of it,” said defender Paul Hanlon. “If you go back to just before the manager came in every body had written us off .
“So to show the form we have done is great. We now have to try and keep it going and see where we finish. It has been a massive turnaround. It is exciting and it is what you want at this stage of the season. We knew we had to try to back up last season. If we didn’t finish in the top six it would have been a disappointing season.
“It’s good that we have managed to turn it around when the odds were against us. We are in good shape, confidence is high among the boys and we are playing nice football. We have also shown we can dig in and win games as we did here and against Livingston last week.”
That battling characteristic was evident in a first half where Hearts applied most of the pressure but wastefulness in front of goal denied them the chance to put daylight between themselves and their guests.
Unbowed, the way Hibs pieced together the build-up to both of Daryl Horgan’s goals and the way the Irishman finished them, showed verve.
The new manager has succeeded in getting the best from a squad that was misfiring under his predecessor and it has been the elevation of Horgan that has been most notable.
A decent performer all term, he has taken that to a new level of late. Thriving, he knows he is appreciated and trusted to deliver by Heckingbottom, pictured, and he certainly shone on Saturday.
While the hosts dominated the first 25 minutes, coming close on a few occasions, cracking an effort off the post and winning corner after corner, Hibs held firm until an Olly Lee delivery was headed home by Peter Haring.
But having had to weather that early onslaught, as though the game was a metaphor for their season, they defied everyone by not only coming back but coming back strongly.
Within a matter of minutes they were back on level pegging after Marc McNulty proved devastating on the break and sent a low cross in which Horgan burst a gut to get to.
The 26-year-old, who was signed from Preston in the summer then wrapped up a sweeping team attack in the 56th minute by burying the ball in the Hearts net from the edge of the area.
If Hibs were resolute in the early part of the game, they were also clinical when it mattered. In their climb up the table, their first victory at Tynecastle in six years was just another rung on the ladder, but it felt like something more significant to their fanbase – and particularly for Hibs players like Hanlon, who was one of only two survivors from that 2013 triumph.
“I remember the 2013 game and it has been a while. The fans turn up here very time in full voice so it is nice to send them home happy.
“I’ve had some great derby experiences but this is right up there because I’ve not had that many victories at Tynecastle. Any time you beat your biggest rivals it is sweet but especially so on their own patch.”
The last time this fixture was staged at Tynecastle the 0-0 draw was marred by then Hibs boss Neil Lennon being hit by a coin and Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal being struck by a fan. Unfortunately Saturday’s game again saw missiles being thrown in the shape of flares from both sets of fans – and, rather bizarrely, a coconut being launched from the away support.
Thankfully, nobody was harmed and Hibs were able to celebrate a hard-earned win. Clever in their game management and shrewd in the tactical tweaks, they were rightly lauded by their jubilant support.
The mood in the home ranks was very different. There were angry shouts from fans and the management and players trooped off rueing missed opportunities. But Hearts striker Uche Ikpeazu urged supporters to lay off manager Craig Levein and get behind the team as they head to Hampden for the club’s second semi-final of the season, on Saturday.
“Craig has done a great job for this club compared to last season,” he said. “We are in the semi-finals, we are still trying to get to the top four, so I don’t see why anybody should get on to him. I believe we can still achieve something this season.
“We lost against Rangers and we lost again today so it’s not a good week. But we’re going to be positive. We’re going to go [to Hampden] and give a good performance. We’ve bounced back from losses before and that’s what we’re going to do.”