How the world turns and the Scottish Premiership with it. At the start of December Hibernian were 11 points ahead of Hearts and the Gorgie faithful were probably dreading the visit of their internecine nearest-and-dearest two days after Christmas. Now they’re feeling a whole lot better about themselves, their manager, their team and their chances.
In the season up until that point Hibs could boast a Hampden semi-final, an unbeaten away record including a win at Ibrox, a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park in which they’d almost defeated the Invincibles, soon to be followed by a 2-2 draw at Easter Road when they went even closer, and most significantly, a convincing victory in the first derby of the campaign. Hearts, meanwhile, had failed to produce a single standout performance or result.
But look at them now. It’s Hearts and not Hibs who have smashed Celtic’s incredible run. Last Sunday was their most spectacular performance and result since the 2012 Scottish Cup final.
Before that 4-0 win, Hibs were shaping up to be as festive-friendly in the capital’s western environs as the slasher flick Black Christmas; as overpowering as the sherry-fumed kisses of the maiden aunt with the hairy mole on her upper lip, arriving late for the family get-together with socks all round for presents, as indigestion-inducing as “Turkey surprise”. And now? No one knows how this game will go, which is the best that Jambos could have hoped for. The wonder of football, of Christmas football, has been fully restored.
I must say I’ve been loving the build-up to this derby, though the preambles are invariably feisty and never dull. At the Hearts agm the day after the Celtic game a stakeholder-supporter asked Craig Levein when it was proposed the team would stop being “bullied” by their Edinburgh rivals. Now I’m sorry but I don’t think there’s a joke in Hibee-supporting Grant Stott’s panto currently packing ’em out at the King’s Theatre that’s as funny as that one.
This was the pot calling the kettle maroon. I’m not for a minute suggesting Hearts during their derby supremacy kicked their way to win after win. But they were often stronger than Hibs, mentally and physically, and my Jambo friends were justly proud of that fact. Hibs, by long tradition, have never been able to bully their way out of a wet paper bag, or Auntie Nan’s Bristol Cream-soaked Christmas cracker. They didn’t bully their way to the victories achieved under Alan Stubbs, nor last season’s Scottish Cup replay win engineered by Neil Lennon or November’s success in the league. The one game where Jambos might conceivably have had a bully beef was the drawn Tynecastle cup-tie back in February when I think even Hibs fans were shocked by the ogre-ish performance of Grant Holt, growling like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, squatting sumo-like and letting the Hearts players bounce off his considerable backside. More shocking than Holt’s “Fee-fi-fo-fum!” was his dab celebration after scoring in the replay. The Hibs groundsman was shocked by the X-large striker’s plummet into the turf, a crater which has never recovered. Meanwhile the Hearts contingent were shocked by the supine performances of the glove-wearing Greeks and others brought in by Ian Cathro – displays which simply won’t be tolerated by Levein, pictured, and especially not with the momentum from last Sunday bubbling like a plump plum duff.
The revival under him has been slow, which is being kind, but now Hearts are back at Tynecastle it might be taking shape. Ah, Tynie. Hibbies are keen for their first glimpse of the completed ground and the new main stand, with its construction having been the subject of fascination from day one.
When it was announced Hearts’ new capacity of “more than 21,000” would ensure Tynecastle became the biggest ground, some Hibs nutters of my acquaintance were spitting mad. I swear they would have chucked themselves off any of the stupendously tall buildings in China, the Middle East or the US which have featured in the “skyscraper wars”. But there has been some snagging work at Tynie necessitating a few crucial seats being lost. Now the nutters – and I swear I’m not one – want to climb to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the Shanghai Tower and tie a Hibs scarf round the radio mast. I wouldn’t be surprised if they smuggle binoculars into the School End on Wednesday, to confirm the total number of seats absolutely.
Such are the petty, playground-formed squabbles of this rivalry which never really gets nasty or, as occurs elsewhere, unlawful. This is the big team vs the wee team, Sir Walter Scott vs Irvine Welsh, Standard Life vs Leith Adventure Playground and we could be heading for six instalments this season, none of which will be dull.
Levein has taken a while but he’s finally begun to loosen up and crack a few jokes during his second spell as the panto dame of Gorgie. Lennon has been good value for gags all season long, the last of them being that Cowdenbeath would have beaten his men given their weak showing at Aberdeen. The Blue Brazil used to be managed by Gary Locke, a Jambo nutter now back working at Tynecastle who, after the win over Celtic, thought it was high time Levein’s No 2 Austin MacPhee visited a Jambo drinking-den. “Like going out in Vegas with Elvis,” remarked MacPhee, adding yet more colour to the Wednesday scene-setting.
I can’t wait but I must. For Santa and a Hibee capable of filling the Grant Holt memorial green-and-white fat-suit.