After the off-field verbal tussle that followed the last Edinburgh derby, tomorrow night Hearts and Hibernian will renew their on-field battle, seeking bragging rights as well as points.
According to Easter Road manager Neil Lennon the latter is the more important as he seeks to open up an even greater lead over their city rivals and the rest of the chasing pack, leaving him and his squad to focus all their attentions on overhauling the teams sitting above them, in second and third place.
But he has been involved in enough big derby matches to know that claiming superiority in the head to heads is still vital, especially when some barbed comments in the aftermath of their most recent meeting left the Leith side with a point to prove.
After bringing to an end Hibs’ nine-game unbeaten streak in the capital clash, and sending them packing from the Scottish Cup, Hearts manager Craig Levein infuriated his opposite number in January by claiming that the Gorgie side’s 1-0 win “restored natural order” in the fixture.
It led to a public spat and Lennon stated at that time that the gloves were off. He also added that Levein’s comments lacked humility and warned that “comments like that come back to haunt you. Whether it will be the next one, the one after that or the one after that, I’m sure our club will be waiting”.
In the first capital derby since, Hearts will travel to Easter Road tomorrow night and although Lennon says his men are looking to make up for that Tynecastle defeat he believes his opposite number has helped take care of his team-talk.
“I don’t think the players need any extra motivation but if they do then we can always use that,” Lennon said.
“I haven’t really spoken to the players about it [Levein’s comments] but I probably will do over the next couple of days and gauge it from there. But you can’t get over emotional otherwise it fatigues you mentally and physically. So we will have to be cold, have to be professional, and we will approach the game the same way we have approached every other game. Of course, there are natural bragging rights for the supporters, I understand that. The last one was five or six weeks ago but since then our form has been pretty good so there has been no hangover or psychological damage.”
Stating he remains unhappy with Levein’s jibe and claiming the Hearts boss is aware of that, he maintains their relationship is “cordial and hopefully it will stay the same”.
“I can’t imagine there will be any fighting, or arguing, or bickering, we will leave that to others. I’ve had enough over the last couple of weeks without creating any more headlines. We will have a beer or a glass of wine after the match and we will either drown sorrows or enjoy the win but very rarely do you talk about the game. If there are any flash points, you try to ignore them. We leave that to the players. We will just have a chat.”
Heading into his sixth Edinburgh derby, Lennon’s record shows only one loss so far. But he recognises he is up against a manager who seems to feed off the intensity of the fixture and relishes the win as much as he does. But the Hibs boss still goes into the game in confident mood.
The defeat at Tynecastle at the end of January was one of only two losses in the club’s last ten matches, a run that includes notable victories over Rangers and Aberdeen, and Lennon believes that is the kind of form needed to emerge with all three points tomorrow.
“Any derby, whether on a Wednesday, Tuesday night or a Friday night, if it’s under floodlights it just adds a bit to the atmosphere and there is a crackle in the air. There is a bit of rawness to it so hopefully we can thrive on that.
“You look forward to every derby. But on the back of a defeat you want to put things right as soon as you can. It’s not really been at the forefront of my thinking in the past few weeks, though. We have had a lot of games against very good sides that we have come through very well. We are in a good position and if we win then we can put the pressure on the teams above us. Rangers don’t play till Sunday and that’s against Celtic so something could give there.”
Hibs could welcome back Martin Boyle and Steven Whittaker, both of whom are back in training after injury. Lennon declared that he has a healthy squad to pick from. “It’s the derby, we are at home and we will take the game to them at every opportunity and my only concern is that we have not had a game since Kilmarnock,” he said. “You worry about a wee bit of rust. But it shouldn’t be too bad.”