Craig Levein: Hibs v Hearts is just as big as Old Firm for the fans

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Craig Levein has little time for anyone who tries to downplay the importance of derbies outwith the Old Firm jamboree.

For him, everything is relative and he insists that every side has fans who care passionately and, if they are lucky, players who will run through the proverbial brick wall for the cause, well aware of the enormity of the occasion.

Craig Levein, left, and Neil Lennon share a cordial moment before Hearts win in the Scottish Cup in January. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

Craig Levein, left, and Neil Lennon share a cordial moment before Hearts win in the Scottish Cup in January. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

As he prepares to take his Hearts side across the city to face Hibs tonight, he revealed that his captain Christophe Berra will take another painkilling injection to numb niggling pain in his ankle, while defensive midfielder Joaquim Adao, pictured, says he is planning to lay it all on the line to emerge from the fixture triumphant, the Angolan newcomer having been quickly educated on how much the match matters to supporters on both sides of the divide.

“I have seen a lot of people speak about this game,” said the January signing, who has earned six bookings in six matches and is vowing to clean up his act but, wisely, is not promising to start amid the harum scarum of a derby. “They have told me it’s a very important game and I can see in the town what it means. The other day I went out with my family and the taxi driver was a Hibs fan. He told me they were going to kill me!

“For me, when you speak about a derby, it is not just a normal game, it is a game for the fans and you need to give 100 per cent. I need to play a little bit more with my head and be intelligent and not give away stupid fouls. But it happens. I get a little bit excited. After the derby I can change maybe! But not for this game.”

Those passions are no surprise to his manager, who dismisses any suggestion that derbies outside Glasgow come with diluted demands or expectations.

“The Old Firm game is just more people,” said Levein. “That’s all it is. When I was up in Dundee, it was crazy at derby matches. Here it’s the same. It is all just people. It’s the same cross section but the difference with the Old Firm is that the crowd is bigger. But you try telling a Dundee United supporter that a Celtic supporter loves his club more! It’s just not true. All that happens is that the Old Firm game is big and attracts more interest but it is the same feelings. This one is the same. This derby match means the same.”

Having lost one and drawn one in the Premiership this term, Hearts finally got the better of their city neighbours in the Scottish Cup meeting. Comments made at the time have rumbled on, adding extra spark to the occasion, and, under the lights, in a packed stadium, despite the fact that preparations and team selection have been hampered by injuries, Levein can’t wait for the action to get underway.

“I like night-time games. I have always liked them. As a player, I liked playing football under the lights. I felt it was a different atmosphere. Because of the nature of this game, I think it will be even better.”

Nine points behind tonight’s hosts at the outset, a loss could leaving Hearts chasing shadows for the remainder of the season, a win could reinvigorate the run-in. But, just 24 hours before kick-off, Levein still wasn’t exactly sure who he will have at his disposal.

With Demi Mitchell recently sidelined for 6-8 weeks, David Milinkovic is likely to miss out after sustaining an injury in training on Wednesday and John Souttar is another doubt. But captain Christophe Berra is battling for inclusion.

Having sustained a head knock in Sunday’s Scottish Cup exit, Levein says the Scotland centre-half has passed the required medical tests and is pushing to be involved.

“I think Christophe will be fine. I’m actually more worried about his ankle rather than his head knock because everything has gone to plan for that,” the manager added.

“He will need to get another injection to play. He’s just different isn’t he? It was him that suggested getting an injection and really it’s just to numb the pain. At some point he will need to get it scanned and have a little rest.”

Levein played at a time when such actions were routine but he knows that his onfield leader is one of a dying breed.

“He would do that for any game [not just a derby]. But it’s changed days. I played out there against Hibs when I had been out for four months with an ankle injury – it might have been longer – and I had four injections in my ankle. That was overkill, I couldn’t even feel my foot but you just did it.

“You played with problems. Sometimes it wasn’t right, thinking about it, but it did show the willingness to go that little bit extra to play and that’s something we’re seeing less and less of. Christophe is a really good example of what I would call an old-fashioned professional footballer and there’s not many of them left.”