WHEN Neil Alexander broke his cheekbone at the start of the season, the agony of the injury was compounded by the pain of disappointment. The first match he was ruled out of was the Edinburgh derby – a fixture which, having grown up as a Hearts supporter, he had always dreamed of playing in.
The injury in Hearts’ win against Rangers was caused by a collision with team-mate Alim Ozturk, and saw Alexander miss out on his team’s matches for a month. Now fully fit and restored to Robbie Neilson’s side as first-choice goalkeeper, the 36-year-old will finally fulfil that dream tomorrow, when his team travel to Easter Road.
“It’s one I’ve really wanted to play in, so I was absolutely devastated before with my injury and not managing to play,” Alexander said. “So this time round I’m really looking forward to it.
“I was lying in recovery at Ibrox with the doctors when I came off the pitch after lying there in pain. When the doctor said ‘You’ve definitely done your cheekbone – you’re going to be out for maybe four to six weeks’, the first thing I thought was I was going to miss the derby.
“It really hurt me hard. We had Hibs, Falkirk, Raith – big games coming up. I’ve been staying away from Alim since it happened, to be honest. Nah, we have a bit of banter about that. It was just one of them things that happens in football.
“I’ve been lucky in my career not to have too many serious injuries. That was probably one of the worst I’ve had.”
With decades of Hearts’ dominance over Hibernian to look back on, Alexander already has a lot of happy derby memories to look back on – although, as he explained, they are not so happy for the man he went with, his father. “I’ve grown up a Hearts fan. My dad, Jim, was a Hibs fan and we used to go to the derbies a lot,” he explained. “So from a young age I’ve known a lot about the Edinburgh derby, so to be able to play in one is going to be really special.
“We were in the family stand. That was one of the games we definitely went to. From a young age I really enjoyed them, the atmosphere and everything, and giving my dad a bit of stick when Hearts won – and they won more than they lost.
“It was great. And I’m really looking forward to fulfilling a dream and being able to say I’ve played in one. I’ve played in an Old Firm derby, I’ve played in an East Anglian derby at Ipswich against Norwich – I’ve played in a few derbies. This is one I’ve not played in, so it will be a good one to tick off when I look back at the end of my career.
“I just liked to rebel against him, I think, to be honest. It was just a school thing – more of my friends at school were Hearts fans than Hibs fans, so you sort of go with the flow. And it just happened from there. I’ve been a Hearts fan ever since.
“I would imagine my dad will be going on Sunday. I don’t know what end he’s going to sit in – he can take my tickets or he can take tickets in the Hibs end. We’ll see.”
Asked what his best derby memory was, Alexander admitted it was hard to recall only one. “It’s a long time ago – I’m getting a bit old for that now,” he said. “Just the ones you win, I’d say. You try and forget the ones you lose and remember the ones you win.
“I certainly remember John Robertson scoring in a lot of them. He was my idol back then and has a great record of scoring against Hibs. Hopefully one of the boys, maybe Osman Sow, can start a good reputation of scoring against Hibs.”
Watching the last one as a member of the Hearts squad was a new and trying experience for Alexander, even though the day at Tynecastle ended well for the home team, who won 2-1. “It was nervewracking. Being able to watch but not being able to influence the game in any way or do anything about the situations that occurred was really tough.
“But Jack [Hamilton, the back-up goalkeeper] came in and did fantastically well, and the boys managed to get a great result. What a talent he is. We know how good he is – he’s very highly rated at this club. Seeing him in training day in day out you knew what he was capable of and I knew he would go and do a good job. It was just him handling the occasion and the expectancy, and he did fantastically well.”
Hearts have yet to suffer a defeat in the Championship, but Alexander expects a tough match tomorrow against an improving home team. “At the minute we’re full of confidence. Hibs are unbeaten in four or five games now, so they’ll be going into the game full of confidence so it should be a really good game.”