IN A slightly surreal conclusion to the latest Edinburgh derby, there were no losers at Tynecastle yesterday, no controversies and no attempts to create any, despite the best efforts of the assembled press. The draw ended Hearts’ 100 per cent home record in the league, but Robbie Neilson, their manager, was in no mood to betray even the slightest sign of disappointment.
He denied that it was two points dropped. He congratulated the referee, Steven McLean, on his performance. He even suggested that neither goalscorer could complain about being booked for celebrating. Those of us who like our capital clashes to be feisty, ill-tempered affairs will be hoping all this maturity doesn’t catch on.
Jason Cummings tried to summon the derby spirit after his first-half opener, but his goading of the Hearts support earned him a yellow card. In truth it was harmless enough, as was Jamie Walker’s celebration, which only briefly addressed the travelling support, but Neilson claimed his player deserved to be punished.
“I thought both of them were right decisions,” said the Hearts manager. “I spoke to Jamie about it. He did alright going to our fans but, as soon as you go to opposition fans, then you are going to get booked. You just cannot do it. As soon as you start gesturing, it is a booking.”
In total, there were seven yellow cards, but nothing red – an achievement in itself on these occasions – and barely a squeak of complaint about the big moments. Alan Stubbs, the Hibs manager, was disappointed that Miguel Pallardo’s push on Danny Handling didn’t earn his team a penalty, but Neilson was content with the rejection of a similar claim 11 minutes later, when Lewis Stevenson appeared to bring down Walker.
“I have not really seen it,” said Neilson. “There were a few challenges that could have gone either way. I thought the referee had a really good game, the best I have seen this season. He spoke to the players well. There were four [Hearts] bookings which for a derby game was not bad.”
Of course, it is easy to find perspective when you drop two points and are still 19 clear of your city rivals. It is easy to rise above the hostilities when you are subjected to your most demanding league game of the season and still manage to extend your unbeaten record to 19 matches.
“I thought it was a great point for us,” said Neilson. “It keeps the unbeaten run going. It was a difficult game because Hibs came here today and they had to win to get their title chance running again, so for us to take a point was good. You want to win every game, but sometimes a point will do.”
Smelling the roses was rather less straightforward for Hibs, whose need of a win was more urgent. They unsettled their opponents with an energetic pressing game from which they deserved more in the first half, but not for the first time this season, Hearts were resilient, spirited and able to salvage a point with a spectacular equaliser.
Scott Allan, perhaps the match’s most influential player, could not disguise his frustration. “I thought we controlled most of the game,” said the midfielder, who set up Cummings’ goal and could have done more to stop Walker’s. “Hearts came into it a bit more in the second half, but certainly in the first half I thought we dominated. It’s just really frustrating we didn’t manage to win. To be fair, their boy has hit a wonder strike for them to score. It was just like the last time at Easter Road and it’s really frustrating. I could probably have got back and got closer to him, but he shifted it quickly to his right and it was some strike. Fair play to Hearts, they keep plodding away and getting a point.”
The word “plodding” hardly does justice to Hearts’ relentless march onwards. They have conceded only nine goals in the league this season. They have failed to score only once. If their rivals harboured any lingering hope of challenging for the title, this result surely extinguished it.
“It’s going to be a hard ask now,” said Allan. “This was a real chance for us to set a marker down, but we couldn’t and it’s going to be hard to catch them now. Hearts are up there because they’ve started the season better than anyone else and been more consistent. They’ve gone to the hard away grounds and picked up results, that’s why they’re top of the league.
“We cannot look back – we need to look forward – and we’ve definitely improved. We’re playing the right way and trying to entertain people. We’ve just not been able to put teams away despite playing good football. That’s been the difference.”
For Hibs now, the hope is that their improvement will continue, that they can finish best of the rest when the play-offs come round. “That’s the real target now,” said Allan. “The aim is to get back up to the Premier League and we believe we’re capable of doing that. If we got to the play-offs, I’d fancy us against anybody over two legs.”