Hearts return from Spain’s Costa Blanca tomorrow eager to switch focus from winter training camp to Scottish Cup tie. The feeling within Craig Levein’s squad is that Hibernian’s unbeaten run in Edinburgh derbies has gone on long enough.
Striker Cole Stockton expects a physical encounter and acknowledges Hearts must stand up to their neighbours. However, it matters not how they win Sunday’s fourth-round encounter at Tynecastle Park. Ending Hibs’ nine-game sequence without defeat in this fixture is the absolute priority.
“Yeah, it’s due isn’t it? It’s got to be due, by the law of averages it’s got to be coming,” said the Liverpudlian. “The physical side comes with it. You’ve got to have that in your head. It’s a battle first to earn the right to play.
“I live just outside the city but the derby is always at the back of your head. When we get back to training on Wednesday, that’s when we’ll know. Hibs are quite physical. Marvin Bartley is quite physical and so is Efe Ambrose. He’s physical but he’s not a big lad.
“Apart from that they’ve got a few good players. John McGinn is very good, Brandon Barker is quick and then Simon Murray, he’s all right. They’ve got good players but with the players we’ve got, I don’t think we should have a problem.”
Kyle Lafferty’s suspension gives Stockton and others the chance to earn a starting place for one of the biggest occasions on the calendar. “It’s a massive game. I’ll just keep myself ready for whatever is what. Get ready for it and come out of the blocks.
“At their place earlier in the season, it was one of them. It wasn’t the best and the 0-0 game last month was a typical derby, it was just a battle. I don’t think we created many chances but I’m confident we will. Knowing we’ve got the defenders behind us as well is encouraging, knowing they’re doing their job.”
As an Everton supporter, Stockton is no stranger to derby difficulties. More than seven years have passed since the blue side of Liverpool last lorded it over the reds. He watched the recent FA Cup tie at Anfield from a cabin in the Highlands and went straight to bed when Virgil van Dijk headed the winning goal.
Defeat isn’t something he takes well, although he feels the Edinburgh rivalry is different to Merseyside. “There are so many foreigners playing in Merseyside now. The Edinburgh derby it’s different. There are a lot of local lads, Scottish and English lads, so it means more. You can feel it more.”
The impression Stockton gives is that he thrives on the intensity. At former club Tranmere Rovers, from whom he joined Hearts last summer, local rivals were conspicuous by their absence. “When I was at Tranmere it was a bit of an awkward one because the only clubs are Liverpool and Everton and we didn’t play against them. It was more the Manchester clubs,” he said.
“Derbies are all the same. You have to earn the right to play. You’ve got to roll your sleeves up.”
The Spanish trip gave Stockton, pictured above, much-needed game time, for his first season in Scotland thus far has been frustrating. Most of his time has been spent on the substitutes’ bench playing third fiddle behind Lafferty and Esmael Goncalves. He started both friendlies on the Costa Blanca against Vitesse Arnhem and then Saturday’s 5-0 defeat by FC Nurnberg.
“It’s good to get back into it again in the warm weather and playing against different teams. It was a good game against Vitesse. It’s about fitness as well. We had ten days off and it’s getting back into it. The winter break is new for me. We didn’t have one at Tranmere.
“We had a few games over the festive period so it was good to get a rest but you want to get back into it, otherwise you’re in the house with the missus all day.”
He spent plenty time with girlfriend Lois at Lochgoilhead prior to the five-day stay near Valencia. “I went back home to see my family for a couple of days and went to Lochgoilhead. We got a log cabin with the missus and the dog. It was a mission to get there, it was up a mountain and bit scary but it was nice when we got there.
“There was no signal on my phone so it felt like being in a different world. It was lovely. There was a bit of sleet and it was freezing, minus seven, so I sat in and watched Everton against Liverpool on Friday night. I’m a Blue so I didn’t enjoy it. It had Van Dijk written all over it. I went straight to bed after he scored.”