Craig Levein likes derby matches. He thrives on the intensity and the fact that stakes are high and that attitude as well as ability tends to settle the score. It may also have something to do with the fact that as a player and a manager he has rarely had to settle for second best in the capital derby.
Heading into the third meeting of the season with their city rivals, Levein is asked if, after racking up a nine-game unbeaten run in the league, with clean sheets in seven of them, victory over their rivals in the Scottish Cup could set up his team for the remainder of the season.
“It’s important, isn’t it, for whoever gets through? It’s a big moment for both teams, who finishes above who is important as well, but, for me, this will be the biggest match of our season.”
Since the famous 5-1 mauling of their foes in the 2012 Scottish Cup final, the competition has been a source of woe for the maroon side of the city, denied progress in the premier knockout tournament on three occasions by Hibs and as Levein’s predecessors have discovered, bouncing back from that can prove tricky.
While Robbie Neilson guided Hearts through an impressive Championship season and romped to the title, leaving Hibs as well as Rangers in their wake, there are some in the Tynecastle stands who focus instead on the following season. That was the one where Neilson’s men looked certain to oust the then second tier Hibs from the Cup but leading 2-0 at home with ten minutes remaining, they squandered their advantage, gifted Hibs a replay, their fans a song with which to goad their counterparts and were ultimately sent packing. It was a collapse that proved hard for many to forgive. Even harder when the Leith side went on to win the trophy that year, ending a 114-year-old hoodoo and robbing their rivals of some of their more caustic chants.
At that time Levein was simply the Director of Football and could only watch from the stands, as frustrated as anyone else berthed there. It was a similar story when Ian Cathro failed to find a way to emerge from the head-to-heads with a victory. Back in the dugout, and with Hibs now on a nine-game unbeaten run in the derbies, Levein knows that he has to find a way to turn those fortunes around before irrevocable damage is done to Hearts’ season and his reputation in the minds of the men, women and children who buy the season tickets and pack out the ground.
“You can’t want to win any more…It’s not something I’ve spoken to the players about. You can sometimes get too caught up in things. It is a big game, our biggest of the season, but you can get people up at a level that they are overly-eager.
“The importance of the game is known widely by all the players, all the staff, everybody at the club and also our supporters. We won’t get beat in this match through lack of effort or not trying or stuff like that. That’s one thing I can be fairly sure of, and that, for me, is the most important thing, that you are in the game from the first minute to the last minute with a chance of winning. That’s what we want to do.
“Everybody would agree that Celtic are quite strong favourites to win the league so there are two other main competitions and one of them has already gone. It comes back to we know it’s a big game, we know how important it is for all those reasons.”
Home advantage is something he wants to capitalise on. As a player and during his first stint at the club, he was used to Tynecastle being a fortress and while home form has been decent – the team has yet to lose a game at the revamped ground – he wants to see more of the draws turned into victories.
“We’re at home, it’s important for us that we win games at home, our record has been pretty good but you can look back through games that we should have won and things didn’t quite go for us. We have improved significantly and I’m hoping with the addition of players before the game that will help us to do better.”
Steven Naismith is the key acquisition, one that Hibs will be wary of, and he can also be talismanic for the Gorgie side in the second half of the season.
“I like Steven and we are fortunate to have Aaron Hughes, Don Cowie, Christophe Berra, who have been good on and off the field. I would class Steven alongside those guys, with how unselfish he is as a person. Aaron, Don and Christophe have been fantastic with our younger players. But with new players, you just don’t know. You can be an instant hero, as Mark de Vries will tell you, in that game just by playing well.
“We didn’t set out to play poorly in the last game. Sometimes the whole occasion, once a game sets out on a certain path it can be quite difficult to pull it to another direction. It happens all the time in derby matches – that sometimes they are not very good. But as long as your team is competing you’ve got the chance of winning the game.
“I can count on the fingers of one hand really good games that I can remember of derby matches. Experience tells me this one will probably be much like the last one.”
He just hopes the outcome is different.