Pat Fenlon insists capital showdown is now the biggest game in Scottish football

THE absence of Old Firm games this season has made the Edinburgh derby the biggest fixture on the Scottish football calendar, according to Pat Fenlon.

THE absence of Old Firm games this season has made the Edinburgh derby the biggest fixture on the Scottish football calendar, according to Pat Fenlon.

Nonetheless, the Hibernian manager believes his players cannot view the match against Hearts as an end in itself if they are to build on the progress made this season.

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After ending last season with 33 points – and defeat by their city rivals in the Scottish Cup final – Hibs already have 31 points this campaign, as well as having knocked Hearts out of this year’s cup. If they win at Tynecastle tonight they will exceed last season’s tally and go level with Inverness and Motherwell behind Celtic.

Fenlon believes that the upturn in fortunes at Easter Road has helped enhance the prestige of the clash between the two Edinburgh clubs. “With Rangers and the Old Firm derby out of the equation, this is probably as big as it gets in relation to two clubs playing each other in this division,” he said yesterday.

“I think that has helped crowds go up from our point of view, and we are taking a big support with us to Tynecastle as well. So I think it has generated big interest. The fact it is the big derby now means it has gathered even more momentum for everybody. I think there is generally more interest in it.

“It means a lot to supporters of both clubs, because they have got to go and face their rivals every day, where we only see each other every seven or eight weeks. So from our point of view it’s about playing a football match and taking the three points. From the supporters’ point of view it’s something different.”

Hibs’ league form faltered in the closing months of last year, and they played poorly on Boxing Day against Ross County, losing 1-0. They bounced back from that defeat three days later with a win against Celtic by the same score – a result which took them six points clear of ninth-placed Hearts – but Fenlon insisted he was more concerned with chasing those clubs who lie above Hibs than with assessing his team against their neighbours.

“I think we look at it as can we make up a bit of ground? Can we get beyond our points tally for the whole of last season if we win? That’s obviously a target. Supporters will always look at it in a different way from a manager and players. It probably means a hell of a lot more to them in the bigger picture.

“We want to make sure we focus on trying to pick up three points. That’s really important for us, and if we pick up three points that will get us closer to the teams ahead of us, hopefully.”

Hibs’ 1-0 cup victory at the start of last month ended a run of a dozen games without a win over Hearts since 2009. It was a result which brought a measure of relief for the club’s fans, but Fenlon explained that for his squad, many of whom have only recently arrived at the club, it did not feel like it was a monkey off their back.

“I don’t think for this group of players it was. Maybe for the general club it might have been – for the players I don’t think it was.

“There were a lot of new players who had not played in games against Hearts before. They probably looked on it as another game. A derby game, obviously – they know what it means to the supporters – but from their point of view not really relevant to what’s gone on previously.

“We think we have changed this club around and we want to continue to do that. And this game is another step on the ladder towards doing that.”

Fenlon should have a full squad after full-back Ryan McGivern, who missed the Celtic game with a hamstring strain, came through training yesterday. “He took part in a full training session this morning, so hopefully there’s no reaction to that,” he added. “If not then he’ll come into the squad.”

McGivern and Hibs’ two other on-loan players, Leigh Griffiths and Jorge Claros, are due to return to their clubs later this month. But Fenlon declined to discuss the state of negotiations involving them.