Hibs dig deep to put Easter Road on level

The earth moved at Easter Road yesterday. It was a sight to stop the heart of any self-respecting Hibee. They were digging up the hallowed turf; a bulldozer mercilessly ripping into the soil that has seen so much history, so much joy, and a fair share of tragic disappointment.

The famous slope that always gave Hibs fans such hope - "Never mind, we've got them downhill in the second half" - will soon be no more. At long last, Hibernian will be playing on a level playing field.

The bulldozer set about its brutal task at 8am, delving deep into the turf and piling the rich sandy soil at the Dunbar end (as it is known, after the long-gone William Dunbar juice factory).

It is beautiful soil. Like cake, it looks good enough to eat. But, historically, it has been unevenly divided across the pitch. From its lowest point, at the left-hand corner flag as one faces the Famous Five Stand, to its highest, at the Dunbar end goal-mouth, there is - or was - a height differential of 1.8 metres.

Yesterday, Barr Construction began scraping the top off one end of the pitch, and soon they will start building it up at the other. Some excess is expected and will be held in dumper trucks until a use can be found for it. There is no truth in the rumour that, rather like the tunnel-diggers in The Great Escape, Hibs players will get rid off the excess soil by filtering it out of their shorts at Tynecastle when the rivals meet a week on Sunday.

Garry O'Hagan, the stadium manager, picked up a handful of the sacred soil and rubbed it round his palm. He said: "Gardeners would die for this stuff."

He admitted to mixed feelings about the demise of the slope. "I am a lifelong Hibs supporter, so there was a lump in my throat when the first bulldozer dug into the soil. It is one of the traditional landmarks of Scottish football and we are all sorry to see it go. But it will create a better playing surface."

Mr O'Hagan believed the fans would still give a special cheer when the team played towards the Famous Five end. Psychologically, there will always be a slope in the Hibee psyche (just as many Hibees believe there is a distinctive slope on the foreheads of Hearts supporters).

It is also likely that, if Hibs win the toss, they will continue to elect to play downhill in the second half.

Given the evident affection for the slope, one wonders why they want to get rid of it. One of the reasons lies with Europe, where strict ground rules now apply to pitches. Hibs, ever the optimists, want to have their pitch centimetre-perfect - they are using laser beams rather than spirit levels - for when the Continent next calls.

Even if it looks a mess at the moment, the pitch will be ready for the first game of the new season. New drainage, irrigation and under-soil heating will be put in place and, as far as the fans are concerned, the only old sods present will be in the opposing teams.

Yesterday, these fans were arriving to claim their little piece of Hibernian horticulture. Square metres of turf were being sold at 10 a throw, with some of the money going to the Clerk Maxwell Cancer Research Fund. Ewan Davidson, 48, was one purchaser. He said: "I've a ten-year-old son, Jonathan, who's a fanatical Hibs supporter, and I happen to be relaying my lawn at the moment, so I thought I would come and get a bit."

However, he wished the team could have kept the slope. "It's a shame. It's a kind of icon of Scottish football. It's a bit like the great European sausage debate. We've had the standard sausage. Now we've got the standard pitch. It takes a bit of eccentricity out of the game."

Anne-Marie Malone and Morag Ovens were woman-handling a roll of turf between them. Half was going to Anne-Marie's partner, Steve. "He's Hibs-mad and I'm going to put it in the garden for him as a surprise," she said. The other half they were giving to a work colleague - for his window box.

Matches on Terra Hibernia have very much been games of two halves in the past. All that is set to change. And, who knows, the level playing field might even help Hibs do better next season. They may not have the slope, but fans hope they will still have the inclination.