While it was true that there was a disappointing turnout from the Hibs fans for a derby, it struck you that this was hardly surprising. Would you sacrifice a Sunday afternoon to attend a match that contained only the highly likely promise of embarrassment?
Possibly not. Indeed, probably not. Make no mistake, those Hibs supporters who thought, given what was at stake, that they would head along to Easter Road and give their boys a cheer were quickly made to question the quality of this judgment. Even before kick-off, the Hearts supporters were making life uncomfortable for their hosts as they swaggered down Easter Road, past groups of nervous-looking Hibs fans who were again pondering how on earth a side relegated weeks ago could be the ones dealing out the derision. It didn’t make sense.
But then very little in the not very wonderful green world of Hibernian does make sense at present. The Easter Road side are currently on 34 points, the total that Hearts would now have were it not for the self-inflicted 15-point deduction. It seems scarcely credible that this fate could have befallen Hibs, whose resources out-strip those of their financially stricken rivals to such an extent.
Fifteen or so youthful-looking Hibs supporters, not the type you might imagine as the would-be leaders of an insurrection, waited behind afterwards for, one assumes, the moment when chairman Rod Petrie made his way to his car. The season began with such a throng outside the front entrance of the ground, following the 0-7 defeat to Malmo. Now it is ending amid the same troubled atmosphere.
Losing four Edinburgh derbies out of five is bad enough. However, the fact Hibs would be level on points with their rivals without that points deduction pours more harsh light on how poorly they have been performing over the course of the entire season, and not just in games against Hearts, which, of course, is hard enough to accept.
On paper, the team picked by Terry Butcher yesterday looked equipped to gain the victory that would have elevated them beyond the mess that has developed above Hearts at the bottom, where four clubs are now separated by a single point.
Scott Robertson returned after injury, while Kevin Thomson retained his place in midfield, and earned the man-of-the-match award for the home team. But this wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to make up for the defensive howlers that are standard issue with Hibs these days. They helped Hearts take a two-goal lead through a pair of headers from Callum Paterson in a game Hearts were eager to win only for reasons of devilment. Hibs, meanwhile, should have been stretching every last sinew in their bid for victory, knowing that it was required to halt a slide that at this rate could deposit the club in the division below along with their city rivals.
A season that began in such disarray against Malmo is now at risk of ending in a more serious funk. Of course, the Hearts supporters are aware of this, and they lapped it up as Hibs began the game in a manner that simply underlined how short in confidence they have become. It was still early, but Hearts supporters were already giving it the “oles” as their players, not so long ago cast as babes in the woods, passed the ball between themselves.
“Hoof!” these away fans bellowed, each time Michael Nelson, someone these critics have uncharitably condemned as an agricultural performer at the heart of the Hibs defence, put his foot through the ball. “Going down with the Jambos!” was another song devised to get under the skin of the home supporters. Has a team ever waltzed so cheerfully towards the trap door?
“Are you Fenlon in disguise?” was directed towards Terry Butcher as the Hibs manager appeared on the edge of the technical area, this bloodied warrior of old re-cast here in the east end of Edinburgh as the captain of a sinking ship.
Everything seemed to go wrong that could go wrong. Everything seemed to invite ridicule. A right-back scoring two headers, both times while unopposed. A striker bought for a reputedly large fee in the summer fresh-air kicking when presented with a chance to equalise near the end. Manager Gary Locke was being urged to give the travelling fans a wave long before half-time. It was that kind of afternoon. The one you wanted to miss if you were a Hibs supporter. And many of them had decided to do just that. But those 10,961 home supporters who did come, and, then, admirably, stayed until after the interval, were handed a fillip in the form of a well-taken Hibs goal from Jordon Forster after 68 minutes.
The header was the signal for an outbreak of hostility in the main stand, where former Hearts player Rudi Skacel had chosen to sit, as is his right. It’s just that someone who has clearly enjoyed baiting Hibs supporters might have to also expect a rough time of it from these same fans, whose patience was already stretched to breaking point. They were not taking kindly to his presence and he spent the rest of the match under the guard of a steward, who moved to sit down near both Skacel and Marian Kello, the former Hearts goalkeeper. But the rancour blew over, as the Hibs comeback anticipated by Forster’s goal quickly faltered.
Was this their most dispiriting derby defeat of the season? Maybe. Butcher noted an improvement in attitude afterwards. He had glimpsed some light, some beacons in the haar.
The trouble is there is a lot of work still to do. And while it might not be fair to say the players look as though their minds are elsewhere – Forster, for one, was a picture of misery afterwards – there is really not much to hold on to as the next set of opponents, in the shape of Partick Thistle, prepare to storm this ruined palace in just six days’ time.