Hibs fail to cross the ever-elusive finish line
THEY tried hard and put on their most attractive face. They were energetic, intelligent and inventive – and “clever, bright and brave” according to their manager. But Hibernian are still waiting for their night of passion with Scarlet Johansson.
Let me explain: in the cult movie Under the Skin, many critics’ choice as the best of last year, Johansson plays a sexy alien predator who trundles around in a grubby van picking up Scottish men, one of them a Hibby in the strip from the 2012 Scottish Cup disaster. The scene where the poor sap, naked and spellbound, follows her into a lake of treacle, seems sadly emblematic of Hibs’ fortunes in the Edinburgh derby right now.
Hearts aren’t beating Hibs by five goals to one at the moment. Instead, and this is almost even crueller, they are showing their city rivals the prize – that of ending the Jambos’ unbeaten run in the Championship – then snatching it away. Hibs think they’re going to win, think they definitely should win, only for Hearts to grab a fortunate draw and everything to turn gloopily black.
Last October, Hibs were seconds from victory when Alim Ozturk struck ridiculously from 40 yards. That wasn’t an equaliser, it was a freakqualiser. On Saturday Hibs were every bit as good as in the 4-0 thumping of Rangers the week before, yet Hearts – who could barely keep the ball in the park in the first half – summoned up some of the steel and belief which has served them so well this season.
With Hearts remaining 19 points ahead of them, Hibs must find consolation in their fine form, and given what’s gone before, that is no small thing.
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This is form the club under Terry Butcher never found, and they are playing better than they did under Pat Fenlon and Colin Calderwood as well. Even in more glistening eras for the men from Leith, they sometimes didn’t sparkle in the derby as this lot did at Tynecastle, refusing to let the occasion get the better of them and seeing no point in ditching the bold patterns of the previous Saturday. In short, Alan Stubbs has given the fans their football team back.
How, then, Hibs must rue the bad luck and poor showings of earlier in the season. Liam Craig’s missed penalty in the first derby with the score at 0-0, their abjectness at Alloa, their queasiness at Queen of the South, Dominique Malonga’s penalty against Dumbarton wrongly adjudged to have not crossed the line – the freakqualiser. If they had won more points from these games they would be worrying Hearts to a greater degree than they are now. Even so, Robbie Neilson on the touchline on Saturday was the most agitated he has been, appealing for calm among his wildly miscuing players and making time-wasting substitutions at the end. Not yet collapsing, Hearts are starting to creak.
The jitters began as early as the 12th second, but from the edge of the box Jason Cummings’ shot was too straight. A quarter of the way into the game, Hibs must have thought Hearts were there for the taking. Given this encouragement in the past, Hibs might still have contrived to fall behind but this time they scored, Cummings skulking on the six-yard line to stab home a lovely, deep cross by Scott Allan, the architect of everything good against Rangers. The striker really should have scored again moments later, but his header from a Lewis Stevenson centre was weak. Even though Hibs were on top you thought they might rue this miss, such is the nature of this fixture and Hearts’ doggedness.
The Jambos’ best spell came in the second half, although they had equalised before then. A complete Paul Hanlon miskick – maybe the alarm had been spread by one from Craig moments earlier – enabled Adam Eckersley to supply Jamie Walker for a fine right-footer. In all three derbies Hearts have scored, if not required, thumping strikes.
The second half can make a claim for being the best 45 minutes played anywhere in Scotland this season. There was committed, pulsating football from both teams in the usual rumbustious atmosphere. Hibs had to adjust when David Gray, facing surgery on his groin, had to retire at the interval. Callum Booth joined the midfield triangles with relish. Then Stubbs gave Dylan McGeouch his comeback from an injury lay-off and the on-loan Celtic man brought his low-slung style to the party. The third sub was Martin Boyle, on loan from Dundee and on the receiving end of a 6-2 thrashing in Thursday’s Tayside derby.
“The last few days have been epic,” he said. “Obviously this has been a much more enjoyable derby for me.” His first impressions of Hibs? “Brilliant, they passed the ball really well. We controlled the game, had more chances and were unlucky.”
The reinforcements will be needed. As well as Gray’s enforced absence, Malonga is bound for the Africa Cup of Nations. Boyle admitted he had only just learned this, and is clearly hoping to benefit. “I hope I can bring some busy-ness, some speed and some goals. And the experience of going up last season with Dundee.”
For Hibs now, the play-offs look the most available route. In their position that would mean six matches. Six cup finals, so they say, although Hibs fans might not quite relish that prospect. Better, for now, to think about Scarlet Johansson and how their team have always been superior to Hearts in cool cultural references.
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