THE goal was one of the biggest blows in the battle for Championship supremacy. It was the first Easter Road derby of the season and Hibs were leading their rivals by a single goal with seconds remaining.
Facing the disappointment of their neighbours being the team to end their lengthy unbeaten league run, Hearts were down to ten men after Callum Paterson had been sent off and looked to have frittered away last-gasp possession when Alim Ozturk launched a 40-yard strike.
The fact it found the net prevented the home side collecting three points and, more importantly, denied them the bragging rights. It also allowed Robbie Neilson’s men to go on to amass a grand total of 20 Championship games on the bounce without a loss and give them an unassailable advantage en route to the title.
“It was a huge goal. We were unbeaten at that point and staring at our first defeat, at the hands of our rivals in the derby – it would have given them a huge lift,” said Neilson summing up the impact of his defender’s long-range effort.
“At the end of the match, we walked away with a point each, but I’m sure Alan [Stubbs] would have been devastated and we were delighted. Small incidents can have a huge bearing on the season and we went on a great run after that.”
“That was a career high,” admitted the Dutch-born Turk. “The game was hard because they played well and then, after about 80 minutes, Callum Paterson got a red card. You are 1-0 down and down to ten men and you’re thinking if we can get one chance to score, a draw would be fantastic. To score a goal like that was a dream.
“It was a great goal but I didn’t know the fans would love it so much. It’s been unbelievable”Alim Ozturk
“Even now, fans still talk to me about it. On Facebook, they are always talking about it. It was a great goal but I didn’t know the fans would love it so much. It’s been unbelievable. I still get messages from fans telling me about how many times they’ve watched it. It’s crazy.”
The number of followers on social media multiplied almost immediately, while a night on the town that night emphasised the polarising effect his goal had on his popularity in the city.
“I remember I was very popular with the Hearts fans – not so much the Hibs fans! That’s football. Some of it was friendly and some not so much but that’s ok.
“I have had a lot of messages. My Facebook was crashing I had so many requests! It was crazy.”
It was his second derby since joining the club in the summer – the first had ended in victory for the Tynecastle side – but it was his high-profile input in the second head-to-head which proved the biggest education.
“The reaction to it helped me realise how big the rivalry is between the two teams,” said the 22-year-old. “If I scored the same goal against Falkirk or anybody else, I don’t think the fans would have loved it so much. Now I have played in three of these games and scored a goal so I know this is very much the most important game for Hearts.
“That day summed up our attitude – we didn’t lose that game. If we’d lost, it would have given Hibs confidence but we ended up feeling like we’d won three points.”
Self-belief is something the Gorgie side have displayed in barrowloads, since the first game of the season and, having started the campaign so impressively, they want to end it just as commandingly.
Relentlessly picking up points – losing just two of the 32 games contested in the second tier thus far – the aim is to maintain that form and focus until the final ball is kicked. Now 26 points ahead of Hibs, with the title already sewn up, the team who, a year ago, staved off the threat of having their relegation fate rubber-stamped by Hibs, could now go a long way to hampering their rivals’ promotion chances as the play-off battle hots up.
“Derbies are always nice games to play in, it’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t matter to me who comes up, Hibs, Rangers, maybe nobody,” said Ozturk as both he and his manager insisted that they will be showing the Leith side no leniency.
“It’s really just about winning games,” said Neilson, who, despite racking up 27 victories in their 32 league matches, said there is one outstanding statistic to address. “We want to be the champions who went to Easter Road and won. We haven’t won there this season.”
“I think they’re going to go for the win because they want to finish as high up in the league as they can,” said Ozturk, acknowledging how tough Hibs could make it. “Rangers losing on Thursday was a massive result for them as well. But we want to win every game between now and the end of the season and the fact it is the derby makes it extra special. It doesn’t matter that we have won the league – this is a derby and we want to win it to show everybody why we are champions.”
Whether he leaves it until the dying seconds again or not, the enthusiastic defender will be hoping to help out the attack once more with another wonder strike.
“I will try it and see what happens!”
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