Celebrating in Leith is becoming a welcome habit for Hearts supporters. Yesterday, their team’s emphatic ending to the New Year derby perhaps heightened the decibel level. Goals from Andy Webster and substitute Rudi Skacel inside the final seven minutes secured a 3-1 victory and set the tone for the post-match revelry. When it commenced, Black revealed a t-shirt bearing the words: ‘I’ll paint this place maroon’ in reference to recent reports stating he had done decorating work to earn money whilst awaiting wages from his employers.
Only the most churlish individual would grudge the Hearts squad their gaiety. December’s wages are still outstanding, some players are earmarked for transfers to cut costs, but ironically they are enjoying a rich vein of form. Beating Hibs propelled them to joint-fourth place in the SPL amid a run of three wins and a draw in their last four matches. On-field spirit has returned, illustrated by their recovery after Zaliukas’ own goal cancelled out Ryan McGowan’s headed opener.
“Losing that goal took the wind out of our sails a wee bit but we came back, we showed our character and we’ve done well to win the game,” said Webster, who underlined the players’ commitment to Hearts despite wage delays. “Obviously circumstances are difficult but when the boys step out on the pitch it gives them that freedom to go and express themselves and I think we’ve shown in the last two or three weeks that we’ve definitely picked up and we’re playing exceptionally well.”
Webster added that at no stage had the squad considered downing tools and following lone rebel Ryan Stevenson in walking out. “No definitely not, I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever,” he said. “As you’ve seen and as has been the case for the last few weeks, the boys are working extremely hard for each other and putting in the effort and reaping the rewards.”
Webster certainly earned just deserts yesterday with a man-of-the-match performance in central defence and a goal to boot. Black was similarly influential and enjoyed one of his finest afternoons for Hearts. He commanded midfield and endured some brutal treatment by Hibs but remained disciplined and focused on his job. There might have been a couple of red cards issued during the 90 minutes but Black was not involved in any such controversy and overall looked a more settled player for it. The penalty miss was the only blip during an otherwise exceptional display.
Other standouts included the goalscoring McGowan, the lively David Templeton and substitute John Sutton, who set up two goals during a 29-minute appearance. The game was finely poised at 1-1 approaching the closing stages. Hearts then simply moved up a gear.
The visitors’ attacking intentions were clear from kick-off and Templeton struck a post after 15 minutes. Hibs then appealed for a penalty when Leigh Griffiths fell jousting for possession with Webster inside the Hearts box. Mehdi Taouil ought to have done better with Stephen Elliott’s cross on 22 minutes, however injury then saw the Moroccan replaced by Andy Driver. Black appeared to be a target for some Hibs players but that was little compared with his experience towards the end of the first half.
Referee Calum Murray awarded Hearts a penalty after Graham Stack bundled Elliott to the ground attempting to clear a woefully short backpass from Calum Booth. On another day, the Hibs goalkeeper might have been red carded but he remained in place to face Black’s kick. The midfielder stroked the ball low towards Stack’s right but could only watch in anguish as the goalkeeper pushed the ball to safety.
Stack denied Black again early in the second period, tipping the midfielder’s 20-yard effort over the crossbar. Hibs were commanding at that stage having emerged brightly from the interval. But Stack’s save produced a corner from which Hearts moved ahead. Black swung the ball over, Webster’s header was saved by Stack but bounced in front of McGowan for a straightforward conversion at the back post. The Australian was a picture of delirium celebrating his first Hearts goal in front of the visiting fans, one of whom galloped onto the park in a fit of joy.
Hibs equalised within seconds of the restart. Danny Galbraith collected Ivan Sproule’s cross ball and drove it vehemently back across the face of goal, where Zaliukas inadvertendtly turned it into his own net.
McGowan was extremely fortunate to avoid a red card on 65 minutes for pushing his head into Sproule having been fouled by the Irishman. He then played a pivotal part in Hearts regaining the lead seven minutes from time. From his long throw, Webster’s header landed at the feet of substitute Sutton, who laid it back for the centre-back to drive low into the corner of the net.
Hearts should have scored a third when Black’s exquisite through ball sent Driver through. The winger sidestepped the sliding challenge of Paul Hanlon to shoot and, although the ball squirmed beneath Stack, Sean O’Hanlon cleared on the goal line. That rescue act only delayed the inevitable as Hearts rounded off their victory in convincing fashion in stoppage time.
Sutton moved off the static O’Hanlon to collect Kello’s long clearance and stroke the ball inside to the unmarked substitute Skacel. One touch and a rasping finish later and the derby was finished. Save for the celebrations, of course.