It’s safe to say the green half of Edinburgh didn’t appreciate Craig Levein’s “natural order” comment in the wake of the last derby. It certainly seems to have touched a nerve down Easter Road way, with manager, players and ex-professionals all having their say on the matter.
It’s difficult to explain why there has been such a visceral backlash to this obvious fishing expedition. Hibs supporters must have saw it coming. They’ve had to live with their neighbours telling them at any given opportunity how Hearts are the “big team” in the capital, goading them about their lack of Scottish Cup success, long spells without victory or, more trivially, each side’s average attendance. They must have anticipated something along the lines of “natural order” coming out of Tynecastle when their own unbeaten run in derby fixtures, their best since the 1970s, came to an end.
Maybe it’s because the words picked at wounds that have yet to fully heal. For a thirty-year period there was no doubt that Hearts had the better of it in derby matches. There was 17-in-a-row, 22-in-a-row, and three Scottish Cups to none, including, of course, the 5-1 Hampden showdown in 2012. Nobody likes to be reminded of pain, particularly if there’s a doubt, regardless of how small it may be, that it could all happen again.
Of course, this is football. There is no such thing as predeterminism, especially when it’s two clubs of similar size and stature. Hearts were better than Hibs for a significant period, but it wasn’t always that way. From 1969 to 1983, the men in maroon won precisely two games against their rivals. A lot of this took place in the days when clubs only met each other twice a season in the old First Division, but it was still 27 fixtures in total. This current side may have missed out on their chance to build their own version of 17/22-in-a-row, but there’s still the opportunity to ram home their recent domination. In fact, it’s there for the taking.
In Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn they’ve got three excellent midfielders, all capable of dominating a game from the middle of the park. The trio are in good form and, more importantly, they know how to win Edinburgh derbies. Then there’s the backline which possesses a lot of experience in Efe Ambrose, Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor, while the recently paired strike-partnership of Florian Kamberi and Jamie Mclaren have already demonstrated they have what it takes to put away the chances created for them. Throw in a goalkeeper who’s unlikely to make a dreadful error in Ofir Marcino and a game-changer in Martin Boyle and Hibs have a team capable of doing damage to anyone, particularly their visitors on Friday.
Hearts travel to Easter Road at the lowest they’ve been in months. There’s a four-game winless streak, injuries to several key first-team stars and a fanbase once again growing impatient with the man in the dugout. Hibs are the better side, playing at home and will have a capacity crowd entering the ground with confidence. It’s time to make this advantage count. Loser of the last derby, they’re 90 minutes from changing that stat to one defeat in 11.
A win will sustain the rekindled belief among the support that times they are a-changing. Prior to the Scottish Cup final win, Hibs’ attendances were dwindling and had been since the tail end of the John Hughes era, while Hearts kept a 16,500-strong backing at an invariably sold out Tynecastle even through their travails.
By getting some respect back in derby games before pulling off the ultimately comeback on their way to ending their 114-year hoodoo they encouraged thousands of fans to come back to the club. Eighteen months later, the returnees don’t look like going anywhere. There will be no reason to, certainly not if Hibs can earn victory in this grudge match and continue their form to the end of the season, which will likely lead to a place in Europe even if they finish fourth, as a either Celtic or Rangers will likely take the Scottish Cup. A surprise defeat to Levein’s men would not chase thousands of fans away, but it would place a seed of doubt in the expectation that this is a new era.
A win may also inflict a significant blow on Hearts. This campaign has been hugely disappointing, the second in succession, but if the Gorgie Road side managed to avoid defeat to Hibs in four of five matches, especially if they were to snatch another victory, it would see them retain a healthy sense of perspective going into next season, where Levein would retain the backing of the majority of fans. Lose and drop into the bottom six - or even worse: lose, stay in the top six and lose again at Tynecastle - and there may be a revolt in EH11 that we’ve not seen since the days when Vladimir Romanov refused to have an actual manager in charge of the team.
There’s a helluva lot riding on these 90 minutes.