Drama of Hearts-Hibs derby won't faze far-travelled Mark Milligan

It will be Mark Milligan's first taste of an all-Edinburgh clash and he is expecting an intensely competitive match and a high octane atmosphere when he runs out at Tynecastle on Wednesday, but the Hibernian player is unsure if that will trump the experience of a derby debut in Saudi Arabia.
Hibs player Mark Milligan has played in derby matches all over the world, including at Melbourne Victory. Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty ImagesHibs player Mark Milligan has played in derby matches all over the world, including at Melbourne Victory. Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Hibs player Mark Milligan has played in derby matches all over the world, including at Melbourne Victory. Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The Aussie, who has also played in several Melbourne head-to-heads, signed for the Easter Road side this summer, adding Scotland to an interesting list of stop-offs in a career that has also featured club stints in China, Japan, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, as well as visits to dozens of countries around the globe on international duty. But when it comes to unforgettable matches, the encounter with Hearts will have to go some to hit the heights of his first match in Jeddah earlier this year.

Joining Al Ahli in January, his debut was in the derby against Al-Ittihad at the start of February in front of a huge, passionate crowd.

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“My wife has travelled around with me and been to a lot of games and four World Cups and after that game she said: ‘that’s the best game I’ve been to’. Just in terms of the stadium, the atmosphere and occasion,” said Milligan.

“Before I went there, I knew football was big in Saudi Arabia but to experience that atmosphere in my first game over there was unbelievable. It’s not something I expected when I made the move there. We drew that derby but went on to lose the league by one point.”

While the Edinburgh rivalry is massive and the support vehement, especially on derby days, relative calmness descends between those head to heads and banter replaces frenzied fandom. There was no such respite in the desert.

“The stadiums are just massive and seem to pop up in the middle of nowhere,” says the man who has been linked with several European clubs over the years but had seen all deals falter, until now, due to an inability to gain a work permit.

“But I couldn’t even go to the shops or anything like that. They are very passionate about their football. It’s more the feedback you get after the [derby] game. I don’t know how intense it is after a derby in Edinburgh, yet, but over there it was really intense.

“Thankfully I used to have a driver, Hakam, and he was a big fella! He used to just clear people out of the way so I could get to where I was going. You were just always getting mobbed. It wasn’t an intimidating scenario, but it was something you had to deal with. Especially as a foreign player, because there are only six or seven of you there and you sort of stand out a bit more. But it was a nice surprise.”

He had to settle for a share of the spoils in Jeddah but the 33-year-old, who has been utilised in midfield and defence by Hibs boss Neil Lennon, has enjoyed the upper hand in the majority of his other derby experiences, throughout two spells at Melbourne Victory.

“We had the majority of the fanbase in Melbourne and I was fortunate enough to be in a couple of tight ones that we won late in the day. The last Melbourne derby I played in, I was actually lucky enough to score the winner in the 90th minute, which was really nice.”

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A similar outcome would be appreciated on Wednesday as Hibs seek to close the gap on Hearts, who currently enjoy an eight-point lead over the Leith side. But Milligan says that, while he is relishing the prospect of a big-game atmosphere and is driven to secure the win for Hibs and get the better of his countrymen in the Hearts ranks, he says it is the team that succeeds in removing emotion from the equation that stands the best chance of a favourable outcome.

“I think the way the league is at the moment, we know this is a very important match. The start of these games are usually intense and fiery and it is the team that settles first that usually comes out with the result. That will be our main goal.

“I think there is enough emotion to go around from all the outside influences, in the lead up and at the start of it.

“You have to win the battle early on and generally if you are able to do that and get a hold of the game, while it doesn’t guarantee the result, it takes you a long way towards it.

“In the lead up there is all the media stuff and there is always a lot of emotion around it but it is important for us to control that, especially being away from home.”