ANY outsider taking a quick glance at recent results in the Edinburgh derby might presume that Hibernian are overdue a victory. Almost three years have passed since tomorrow’s visitors last got the better of Hearts, and if they fail to leave Tynecastle with three points this time, their run without success will stretch to ten matches.
But football in general rarely conforms to any such presumptions, and this fixture in particular has known far longer periods of dominance by Hearts than the one they currently enjoy. If Paulo Sergio’s team stretch their unbeaten run into double figures, they will be closing in on Hibs’ best-ever stretch of 12 games without a loss, but will be nowhere close to their own record of 22 or their second-best run of 17.
Of course, while Hibs fans are eager for a first success since Derek Riordan’s late penalty gave their team a 1-0 win in May 2009, there is a more tangible prize on offer for Pat Fenlon. The three points for a win would take his team seven points clear of Dunfermline at the bottom of the table, a margin which would be close to representing safety even with the post-split games to come.
While that desire to finally escape the threat of relegation is an obvious motivating factor for Hibs, Hearts have no such clear goal to aim for. They can lose this match yet still get into the top six with something to spare, and will still be in a race with Dundee United for fourth place.
But there are players on both sides who do not need any obvious motivating factors in order to compete to the utmost in this game. Try telling Ian Black, for example, that this game does not matter so much to his team, and the Hearts midfielder would soon let you know you were mistaken. Black’s colleague, Rudi Skacel, has come to cherish this match as much as anyone who has worn a maroon and white scarf since infancy, while the Hibs squad contains several players who grew up supporting the club.
And if statistics are no guide, and if the meaning of the game in terms of league position is little indication, it is also hard to make too hard and fast an opinion from the relative strengths of the two squads.
Since Hearts won 3-1 at Easter Road at the start of the year, Fenlon has overhauled his team drastically, bringing in a number of experienced players, most of them on loan, in a bid to strengthen the spine of his team. On paper, those signings have been impressive, but on the pitch they have yet to make the impact their manager hoped for. Indeed, there have been odd games when some of the newcomers have displayed similar weaknesses to the players they replaced, as if there were some virus at Easter Road which afflicted every arrival with a heavy dose of self-doubt.
Certainly, the 5-0 home defeat by Celtic just a few weeks ago showcased all the old failings. But there have been contra-indications too: in both the Scottish Cup and the SPL, Hibs have achieved results which, though some way short of stunning, have at least hinted that Fenlon is on the right route.
Captain James McPake in the heart of defence and Tom Soares on the right side of midfield are two who would not look out of place in a team far higher up the league. And, while Jorge Claros has yet to live up to the hyperbole which greeted his arrival, his duel with Black will be one of the most fiercely contested head-to-heads in the match – and probably the most likely to determine the outcome.
Hearts, by contrast, have changed little since the start of the year. Of the squad on duty at Easter Road back then, John Sutton has left on loan and Marian Kello has been excluded, but otherwise the line-up is the same – with the significant addition of Craig Beattie.
The former Celtic striker has had little time to regain match fitness after spending the last few months of his stay at Swansea on the sidelines, but he showed last week against St Mirren that he does not need long to get back to something approaching his best form. Beattie scored in that drawn cup tie, and had another perfectly good goal disallowed for offside. His speed and finishing ability have added significantly to the firepower of a club who have been crying out for a striker of his calibre, and he could also help bring the best out of fellow-striker Stephen Elliott, who has worked tirelessly this season in trying circumstances.
Hibs’ January signings have brought their squad closer to Hearts in terms of strength, but overall Sergio still has the more able players to call on. And at their best, such as December’s home win over Motherwell, Hearts have played a quality of football which Hibs have not come close to this season.
But that best has rarely been seen over the past two months, which is why it is tough to come to a conclusion based on the squads. And, contrary to how big matches are often portrayed, it is hard to see this one as a battle of wits or will between the two managers. Fenlon seems to have been driven to frustration at times by some of the more errant talents in his team, while Sergio, with his future uncertain, has had a semi-detached air about him lately.
When Hearts hit a rich vein of form towards the end of last year it was because the players put the club’s financial worries behind them and resolved to go out there and play. Of course, the Portuguese manager had an input, but the players’ attitude was the vital ingredient in the run of five wins and a draw from six matches.
It will be the same tomorrow. If Hearts play to their best, they will prove too strong. But if their attitude falters, as in some recent games, they will give Hibs a golden chance of ending that losing run before it reaches double figures.