The spotlight was on Hibs, who have tumbled from being the third-best team in Scotland to missing out of the top-six of the cinch Premiership altogether. Overtaken by their rivals, only one thing would make amends for their suffering support: a win over Hearts at Hampden and a place in next month’s Scottish Cup final.
Before kick-off, they were written off by many, deemed miles behind the Jambos, who have claimed their throne as “best of the rest”. Hibs have been underwhelming since Maloney came in back in December, replacing Jack Ross. Remember, Ross led Hibs to the final last term.
Hibs feel like a club who aren’t showing much promise right now, but Maloney kept to his word here. This was a better performance, full of aggression and no end of work rate and intensity. The problem, though, is that in the crucial areas, Hibs lack the quality that brings tangible rewards.
Aggression was the order of the day. Clearly stung by the criticism for their collapse when leading 1-0 in Gorgie last week, Hibs came out like a group of players with a fire lit beneath them. They snapped into tackles, were strong in the aerial duels and left absolutely nothing in the tank.
Their approach spooked Hearts, especially in the second half as Hibs tried to find an equaliser. It must be said that when Hearts went 2-0 up on 21 minutes via a quite spectacular Stephen Kingsley goal, thoughts turned to Hampden ten years ago, when Hearts eviscerated their rivals 5-1 in the 2012 final. That Hibs scored soon after through Chris Cadden and then continued to battle and, at times, dominate with ten men is testament to their character. Some of their fans left at 2-0, no doubt fearing another Hampden humiliation.
The problem for Hibs, however, is not work-rate and dedication levels. It is down to quality. Especially in attack. Hull loanee James Scott has contributed so little to Hibs’ cause this season, yet he was one of five changes to the team. It was his first start since September 12 – ironically, against Hearts – but his afternoon summed up Hibs’. He ran about a lot but never looked like delivering.
Hibs are too light in the final third. In part, they have been unlucky. Kevin Nisbet’s season is over due to a bad knee injury and Christian Doidge couldn’t make it either. Martin Boyle’s sale for £3million in January is wholly understandable. But why reinforcements of repute weren’t brought into the forward line during the winter transfer window remains a head-scratcher. Elias Melkersen and Sylvester Jasper are promising yet raw, Chris Mueller untried in Scotland and Scott – well, you know the rest. Hibs have paid for neglect in that area.
The fact remains that while Hibs ran Hearts close here, they are miles behind their capital rivals. Their season is now likely to fizzle out in the bottom six, appearing too far away from St Johnstone in 11th place to be pulled into a relegation battle, with eight points and three teams between them. Most Hibbies applauded their team for its efforts at full time, but they left with the usual feeling they have when they meet the Jambos in G42: despair. Hibs are still to beat Hearts at the national stadium.