Darren McGregor has yet to taste derby defeat as a Hibernian player. But having experienced more than enough of it growing up as a fan of the club, he is in no rush to sample it on the pitch.
The realist in him knows that the time will come when Hearts again get the better of their derby rivals but he hopes to stave it off for as long as possible, focusing primarily on extending the Leith side’s unbeaten run in Gorgie this afternoon, when the combatants face off in their Scottish Cup tie.
It is the third successive season that the rivals have been drawn together in the nation’s premier knockout tournament. On both previous occasions they have drawn at Tynecastle but overcome their city foes in the replays, at Easter Road.
“When you look back in history, Hearts have always had the better of Hibs but in the recent past we have acquitted ourselves well. Over the past three years, in the time I have been here, we have not been beaten so that is maybe a good omen, but we don’t want to get complacent because we know that a lot of the games have been razor close. The last one was the same and I expect it will be the same on Sunday but we have shown that we can compete and we can beat them and there is no reason why we can’t do that again on Sunday.”
In the two head-to-heads in the league this term, a narrow 1-0 Hibs win was followed up with a goalless draw just after Christmas. Those results stretched Hibs’ run of derbies without defeat to nine, with fans’ songs suggesting they are confident that they can make it into double figures and the next round of the cup.
But it remains a long way shy of the record 22-in-a-row which was pieced together by Hearts in the late 80s and early 90s, which is why McGregor almost balks at the jubilations and would prefer, as most players would, to take it one game at a time.
“If you isolate that, it is a significant enough achievement but I don’t think that in itself is something that is really worth getting that excited about or celebrating. I think it is swings and roundabouts and I’m sure that in the near future, it will go for Hearts and they will get a couple of victories over us. I’m not going to say that we will never get beat by Hearts again, let’s be honest, it is going to happen some time. We are on a decent enough run at the minute but the games have been close so we are not taking anything for granted. We will go into this one with the same mindset we have approached the ones before and if it ends up like previous games there then it will be a draw and we will take them back to Easter Road!
“In previous years we have done really well. The last game [in the league] probably wasn’t the greatest spectacle and a draw was possibly the right result but I would take a boring 1-0 win over an exciting loss any day of the week. We will go there buoyed by confidence. We know that they are a good team but they are missing the big boy [Kyle] Lafferty so that might be in our favour but they will have Steven Naismith so that counterbalances that. He is a really good player, I rate him and I respect him. He is a very intelligent player so it is poised to be an interesting game.”
While there will be new faces in the opposition ranks – with Demetri Mitchell also expected to make his competitive debut at left-back – Hibs will also have fresh options. Scott Bain has been brought in as competition for Ofir Marciano in goal, Jamie Maclaren has moved up the pecking order following the ostracising of the wayward Anthony Stokes, and yesterday’s surprise signing of former Hearts defender Faycal Rherras adds extra spice.
“It is exciting,” says McGregor. “For me, and a lot of professionals, you want to play at Ibrox and Parkhead but the intensity of matches at Tynecastle – because of the dimensions of the pitch and stadium and the close proximity of the crowd – means it is a great place to play. A lot of the boys actually prefer to play them at Tynecastle because it takes the pressure off of us and places it on them so it will be a great opportunity.”
Pressure is relative, though, and having finally cast off a century-long curse, there is a sense that they should be able to approach Scottish Cup games with a bit more freedom. But perennially drawing their derby rivals in the competition has ensured the desire to progress is as intense as ever.
“You could look at it like that but personally I don’t feel like that. I go into every game wanting to win it. The fans can now say that we have won the cup but every game is important. That is not just a cliche. The fans are not going to accept us getting beat just because we won the cup two years ago. They want us to win and we want to win. Everyone wants the bragging rights and to kickstart the new year with a win in a derby.
“There is always pressure there but because these are usually so close and these are such great games to play in, the pressure sort of evaporates the minute you cross the line and then you just soak up the intensity and the environment. When you are retired and looking back these are the games you will cherish. There will always be a bit of anxiety and fear but that is what motivates and inspires you.”