Two young managers making their way in first managerial jobs at clubs where the scrutiny is fierce, it is not surprising Robbie Neilson has huge admiration for Hibs opposite number Alan Stubbs. As the Hearts head coach explained, they both have more in common than not.
It might not be what the media wanted to hear on the eve of such an anticipated clash between Neilson and Stubbs’ sides. But then when Hibs and Hearts play each other, as they do in a William Hill Scottish Cup fifth round replay tonight, is there any need to add to the hype?
Over 20,000 will be at Easter Road, numbers boosted by the television blackout imposed because of Uefa rules about broadcasting games on Champions League nights.
“Just like old times,” commented Neilson, clearly relishing an occasion that pitches together two managers who, however hard they try, cannot quite seem to summon up the antipathy expected – and, indeed, desired – by some.
Stubbs did try making one impish comment about how the late postponement of Hearts’ home league clash with Partick Thistle on Saturday had offered them a convenient day off prior to this evening’s clash.
“I supposed I probably would have liked to see both teams playing but the weather was really bad through here on Saturday,” he said, with a smile that suggested the weather “through here” was no worse than at Livingston, where Hibs played out a hard-fought goalless draw with their hosts.
Neilson, for his part, was taking issue only with the bookmakers, the majority of whom make Hibs favourites to progress to the last eight. This is strange considering the Easter Road team, although playing at home, are second in the Championship, while Hearts occupy third place in the league above. “You need to tell the bookies that!” said Neilson, when this fact was pointed out.
But Neilson had only warm words for Stubbs.
“I get on well with Alan,” he said. “I like him, I think he is a good guy. And I like his two assistants as well.
“There is a lot of respect between the two coaching teams,” he added.
“We both work in the same city, we are both at big clubs. Alan has come in and taken over a similar situation to myself, when the club was at a low. When you are having to build things but I think Hibs will get out of the Championship. I hope they do.”
More than one person has noted that there is little of the needle so in evidence when Hibs take on Rangers, for example. Stubbs rarely misses a chance to try and get under Ibrox manager Mark Warburton’s skin.
A slight difference in opinion did emerge last week. Stubbs made a lacklustre attempt to score points after what some interpreted as over the top celebrations following the 2-2 draw at Tynecastle.
He had been informed of Neilson’s comment that such antics only proved how much it means to teams to simply draw at Tynecastle. Stubbs asked: Hadn’t Hearts celebrated when Alim Ozturk scored a last minute equaliser at Easter Road last season? Which is exactly what Neilson had conceded in a press conference a couple of days earlier. The rival managers end up agreeing with each other even when it seems they are in dispute. The nature of the assignments they have been handed is also comparable.
Stubbs accepts Hearts, who managed to gain promotion from the Championship last season, are a season ahead in their project. “Ours may take a year longer,” he said. “But we hope we can go from strength to strength as well.”
While Neilson clearly wishes to extinguish Hibs’ Scottish Cup ambitions, he wishes them well in their bid to return to the top flight as quickly as possible.
He empathises with Stubbs’ struggles to overhaul a rival side with a bigger budget. In Hibs’ case it is Rangers, while Hearts have two to contend with: Celtic and Aberdeen.
“I think we have a lot in common,” said Neilson. “We are both competing against bigger teams.
“Alan is competing against Rangers and we are competing against Aberdeen and Celtic. The clubs are in similar circumstances at the moment. We’ve managed to push out of the Championship and now they are trying to do the same. I hope they do it. When you see the build-up to the Edinburgh derby, you want more of it. The television companies certainly want more of it.
“The sooner Hibs and Rangers get up the better,” he added.
Tonight’s clash will have no bearing on Hibs’ promotion efforts of course. If anything, it might prove obstructive, falling as it does between two vital league clashes. Hibs dropped points in the first of them, at Livingston on Saturday. Hearts, meanwhile, were handed a day off. Neilson claimed it was unwanted, particularly when players such as Abiola Dauda and Jamie Walker require match fitness.
He did, though, take the opportunity to watch Hibs in snowy West Lothian. For all that he sounded sincere in his kind sentiments towards Stubbs and his side yesterday, this doesn’t extend to completely disregarding the boundaries existing between Hibs and Hearts.
“I was sitting in the Livvy end so it was alright,” Neilson smiled, when asked how the Hibs supporters treated him. “I wasn’t going to sit in the Hibs end!”