Hearts striker John Sutton far from ready to accept derby power shift
IF THE league table is an accurate guide, there has been a marked change in the relative fortunes of the two Edinburgh clubs this season.
After a decent start, Hearts have more recently been in the top six only fleetingly, whereas Hibernian have been lodged in the top four for some time.
If games between the clubs are taken into account, the same impression arises. The only league match to date was a draw, but last month’s Scottish Cup tie, also played at Easter Road, saw Hibs win 1-0.
Hibs have made some progress this season, whereas Hearts have not been the force they were. The Easter Road club may well struggle should they lose striker Leigh Griffiths and key defender Ryan McGivern this month, but those two and Jorge Claros, the other player whose loan period expires this month, are available to Pat Fenlon for tonight’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. Hearts boss John McGlynn, by contrast, will be without Ryan McGowan, who although still a registered Hearts player is having talks in China about a move to Shandong Luneng Taishan.
So does all that mean there has been a significant shift in the balance of power within Edinburgh football? That depends on how you define the term.
Accept the league table as an accurate indicator, and you accept that Hibs have been better than Hearts over the course of the season so far. Decide that you need to judge the matter from a slightly longer perspective, say the last four years, and there is no question: Hearts are superior.
Take a longer look still, and the weight of evidence tips still further towards the west of the city. That cup loss ended the Tynecastle club’s unbeaten run of a dozen games in the fixture - and that run, impressive though it was, is dwarfed by previous sequences of 17 and 22 in a row without defeat.
Whatever happens tonight will thus have minimal effect on the overall statistics of the fixture, which has been played more than 600 times since Christmas Day 1875. But would an away win at least confirm that, for the time being, there has been a power shift?
Not according to John Sutton. The Hearts striker, who has been back in the starting line-up of late following McGlynn’s decision to field a 4-4-2 formation rather than 4-5-1, argued yesterday that Hibs will have to do a lot more before they can claim that their superiority is more than merely transient.
“If Hibs finish second and win the Scottish Cup 5-1 and we finish where we are, then people can talk about a power shift,” he said. “But for me it’s a bit premature at the moment.
“There’s a long way to go this season. We haven’t had a good start, but we’re not a million miles away even from second place and have the semi-final of the League Cup.
“We have plenty left to play for and if we can get our act together then I don’t think people will be talking in terms of a shift so much. A win would set us up for the rest of the season. We’re a bit lower down in the league than we’d have liked, but we’re still not too far off the pace.
“A win against Hibs, a run of games to get up the league, and then there’s still the League Cup to play for. Hopefully at the end of the season we can look back and say it’s been a good year for the club.”
Having said that, Sutton added that he did not regard this game as a chance to gain revenge for the cup defeat, even if he thought there was an element of misfortune about the result. “From our point of view we didn’t deserve to lose, but we maybe didn’t deserve to win.
“Hibs have had a better season, but we’re focused on ourselves. I don’t want to get into the whole ‘they beat us and we beat them 5-1 in the final’.
“It’s not about that: it’s about the next game against them. Hopefully we can beat them and start a decent run in the league.”
Hibs full-back Tim Clancy has only played in one derby since his summer move from Motherwell, having been ruled out of the cup match by injury. Hibs supporters may have welcomed the latter match as a morale boost, but the Irishman sees things a little differently.
“I don’t think the morale was down,” he said. “We’d had a good start to the season then hit a sticky patch when we lost a few games, but the morale in the camp has always been good.
“Obviously it was nice to get the victory in the cup game. But while it was a nice one for the fans, it just means we are in the next round of the cup.
“If we can get a win, brilliant, because it gives us a chance to go up the league and we are only concentrating on what we’re doing. If that’s enough to get us ahead of Hearts, then fine.”
While Sutton will be a threat to a Hibs defence which still looks vulnerable in the air at times, Griffiths should again be the key player for Hibs in what may be his last derby. Wolves, his parent club, want £150,000 for the striker, and Clancy believes that whichever club signs him will have got a bargain.
“It’s a low-risk investment for the wee man. I wasn’t at the club last year, but players get stuck with a reputation. Since I’ve come in, every day he works really hard and never causes any trouble at all.
“I thought he’d be a lot different from what he is, but he is a major asset at our club. With him being a Hibs fan, it would mean a lot to him if he could score again. You saw how much he enjoyed it in the 1-1 draw earlier in the season.”
If Andy Webster is missing as well as McGowan, Hearts could have problems containing Griffiths. But the home team have themselves carried more of a threat up front since the cup game, and look more capable of answering back this time if they go a goal down.
Whatever the result, you can be sure it will mean something different to the two sets of supporters. And far from ending any arguments about the relative strengths of the teams, it may only keep the debate going until the next meeting, now barely two months away.