The first Edinburgh derby of a new Hearts-Hibs landscape
Last February, Heart of Midlothian were leading 2-0 at half time in the fifth-round of the Scottish Cup. Five minutes after the restart they lost captain Alim Ozturk to injury and it would have a destabilising effect. They then began to lose possession, territory, control and they would soon lose the lead. Jason Cummings scored for Hibernian, as he always does against the team who he supported but released him as a youngster, before Paul Hanlon scrambled in an equaliser for the Championship side.
Premiership Hearts would go close twice in stoppage time but they could not prevent a replay, or as former Hearts boss Robbie Neilson lamentably put it “a money spinner”.
The Gorgie side had it within their grasp to prolong Hibs’ Scottish Cup pain for another year, but they surrendered a two goal lead, then surrendered meekly in the replay.
Eventually it would lead to May 21, Scottish Cup final, stoppage time, Ian Crocker, Liam Henderson, David Gray and 114 years of agony, ridicule, embarrassment and torment consigned to history.
This coming Sunday, the teams meet once again at the fifth-round stage of the William Hill Scottish Cup. And once again it is at Tynecastle, Premiership v Championship. This time, however, while Hearts fans would loath to admit it, the nature, the essence, the landscape of the Edinburgh derby has changed.
Hearts possess the dominant derby record, they still have 22-in-a-row, they still have Wayne Foster on the fence and of course they still have 5-1. Yet, the stick in which they loved to beat their rivals with has vanished. Having taken great pleasure in lording it over their city rivals about their ‘big cup’ record, each year counting up, they will have to endure Hibs fans singing about purging themselves of their cup hex. And rightly so.
The Easter Road men have a quite significant, and more modern, feat to accompany that 7-0 success and their adulation of a certain Albert Kidd. What makes it all the sweeter for the 3,500 or so away fans, who will take their place in the Roseburn Stand on Sunday afternoon, is that Hearts were minutes away from preventing any of events from 7 February onwards happening.
If a butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park . . .
While the back and forth will place in the stands - ‘when the Hibs went up to lift the Scottish Cup we were there’ predictably followed by either ‘we only won 5-1’ or ‘when the Hearts went up to lift the Scottish cup you were there’ - it is the action on the pitch which excites, intrigues and hopefully enthralls.
The Edinburgh derby is the stand-out fixture of the Scottish Cup weekend. Many will expect it to disappoint, as it has done so over the last decade or so. Between Saulius Mikoliunas’ thunderous winner in Hearts’ topsy-turvy 3-2 victory on Boxing Day, 2006 and the aforementioned draw last season there have been 37 Edinburgh derbies.
There are fond memories on both sides of the capital, but in terms of a spectacle for the neutral the vast majority of the 37 have been underwhelming. One side failed to score in 21 of the 37, with four goalless draws.
When an inebriated Rod Stewart and a flummoxed Alan Stubbs, one media appearance away from appearing on Celebrity Storage Hunters, picked out the Edinburgh duo following the conclusion of Celtic’s victory over Albion Rovers there were collective groans from those of both green and maroon persuasion. But more so from the latter.
Hibs were, and still are, sitting pretty at the top of the Championship as they follow the proverb ‘third time’s a charm’. They had romped into the fifth-round with their second seven-goal winning margin at Tynecastle. But they would have preferred that Hearts weren’t afforded the opportunity to dethrone them, even if Hearts were to immediately discard the throne when drawn against Celtic in the quarter-final at Celtic Park.
Still, there is the prospect of going to Tynecastle for one last time before it is redeveloped. The opportunity to gloat, rejoice and serenade their May heroes.
At the time of the draw Hearts were in a dark place. A threadbare and vacuous squad were making it difficult for new head coach Ian Cathro to transmit his ideas. The signs after the 1-1 draw in Kirkcaldy against Raith Rovers were far from propitious.
It is not often Hearts’ obdurate support admit to anxiety when it comes to derby games, believing it to be their right to win, but there were concerns following the draw. They saw a team lacking in confidence and quality, and another with match winners on a fine run.
A 4-0 defeat at Celtic was accompanied by Hearts followers disregarding the league with one simple motto ‘just beat Hibs’. But what a difference a few days can make. Two victories and seven goals later a new-found confidence has returned to the support. Not only is the derby now relished among the Gorgie faithful but second place is a target once again.
By the time fans were returning from Motherwell on Saturday afternoon, Neil Lennon was bemoaning an “awful” performance at Easter Road as Hibs dropped points to second bottom Ayr United.
As the dynamic of the rivalry off the field has changed since May, the dynamic on the field has altered in these last couple of weeks. Hibs will have at least 10 players in their squad from the last Tynecastle encounter. Contrast that to Hearts who will have half of that number, such has been the turnover of players at Tynecastle.
This aspect could work in either side’s favour. On the one hand Hibs have ample derby experience in their ranks. It is an intangible quality which is often overplayed, yet can prove to be a precious commodity. The players will know there’ll be little football played in the opening stages; keeping your wits about you and staying calm is imperative.
Hibs possess players who know what it takes to win the Edinburgh derby - they’ve not lost a derby since the start of the 2014/2015 season. Something which Hearts used to cherish in abundance.
On the other side there is the surprise element which caught-out both Rangers and Motherwell. Hearts’ nine new recruits have adapted quickly with teams unaware of the qualities within the new-look team. And with the squad finding an equilibrium, Cathro now has options.
Lennon has also kept his cards close to his chest in recent weeks. After the signing of Chris Humphrey, Hibs had finally acquired the pacey winger they were crying out for to give them balance. An assertive slaying of Dundee United showed a Premiership squad in all but name. Yet, the laudable 1-0 win in Dumfries recently saw Lennon return to a narrow-midfield.
Both managers have big decisions to make.
The Tynecastle pitch currently resembles a battlefield. It is more suited to the likes of Major Dick Winters and the rest of Easy Company than Alexandros Tziolis and John McGinn.
Lennon, whose return to EH11 adds an extra narrative to proceedings, will recognise that the game will be a battle. It will be quick, bruising and at times aerial, ideally suited to Grant Holt, whose presence will help Hibs break what will likely be a high and concerted press. Does Lennon surround him with whippets like Martin Boyle and Humphrey, which could mean Cummings, so often the bane of Hearts, takes a place on the bench? Or does he try to win the midfield battle with a narrow and congested midfield, opening up space for Cummings to play beside Holt?
Cathro must feel gluttonous compared to the slim-pickings he had to choose from before January. He had been suffering from a cold recently but now has a headache in terms of personnel and system.
In the last two outings he has started with a front two, but the team looked slicker when Bjorn Johnsen made way for Choulay at Fir Park. Yet the size and quality of the pitch could again be a deciding factor. If Hearts are to play direct and aggressive, a two-pronged attack may be more beneficial.
The standard of Jamie Walker’s, Tziolis’ and Don Cowie’s recent performances make their places assured. Sam Nicholson has returned from injury, Arnaud Djoum returns after Africa Cup of Nations success, Perry Kitchen has upped his game, while Choulay contributed off the bench.
There are so many options and so much talent in both teams. It could be argued that this is the most competitive and balanced derby in terms of quality on each side since that five-goal thriller in 2006.
It is the perfect opportunity for Cathro to thrust the momentum he has been building at Tynecastle to lightspeed. He only has to look what a derby defeat did to his predecessor. The Hearts support can be unforgiving when it comes to defeats against Hibs. Neilson struggled to recover from last year’s lost.
For Hibs the priority remains the league, to end their Championship perdition. Yet, Lennon would love nothing more than to see off Hearts, endearing himself to a support who would embrace the role of serial tormentors.
New protagonists may have emerged in an altered derby landscape, but the venue is familiar and the voraciousness among both sets of fans remains undiminished. This weekend, Gorgie takes centre stage in Scottish football.