Banned after he was caught grabbing Eboue Kouassi’s crown jewels in the League Cup semi-final against Celtic just three days prior to Hibs’ arrival at Tynecastle in October, this time it is the game MacLean is hoping to grab – by the scruff of the neck – when Hearts head across the city to Leith tomorrow.
“Saturday is a great game, one we all want to play in,” said the 36-year-old. “Hibs got a great result at Ibrox and they’ll be buoyed by that. But we’re four points ahead of them so a win would take us seven clear. At this stage of the season, that would be very good for us.
“I’ve not played in an Edinburgh derby yet. I missed the last one – suspended for some reason! I can’t mind what for…
“Listen, they’re just great games. They’re why we play football. I’ve played in big derbies before. They’re good games, the games you want to play in, so it was horrible just sitting watching that last one. But it’s one of these things.”
That firey encounter finished in a goalless stalemate, and with the paucity of goals proving a source of frustration for Hearts in the majority of the games since, with just two wins, one draw and an unsightly six losses blotting the form guide in the subsequent nine games, MacLean is thrilled to have Steven Naismith back in the fold for this trip to Easter Road.
The experienced pair formed an impressive understanding in the early part of the season and along with Uche Ikpeazu, pictured inset, gave opposition defences some torrid afternoons as the Gorgie side took up residency at the top of the Premiership and MacLean presented many of those who were sceptical about the veteran’s summer arrival from St Johnstone cause to reconsider.
With two of that trio out injured, the slide down the standings has been difficult. A few weeks ago MacLean described it like being in the trenches and admitted he has had to be thick-skinned. But there is solace in the fact that they remain close to those above them and ahead of Neil Lennon’s men. With key players returning to full fitness, he also sees light at the end of the tunnel and while Hibs have bounced back from some disappointing results with a good run of wins and draws against the top two teams, Celtic and Rangers, Hearts have also shown flashes of their early form and have returned to winning ways just in time for the new year’s derby.
“We’ve both picked up again,” said MacLean. “They got a good result against Celtic and a point against Rangers, and another point at Ibrox. So they’re on an upward curve. But hopefully that’s us getting back to our best, as well. Hopefully it will be a good game but a win for Hearts.”
A contributing factor in the upturn in fortunes and Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Hamilton, has been Naismith’s presence, which has imbued his colleagues with more belief and fulfilment.
For MacLean it is a case of edging back to the standards that they set themselves during that bright start to the season.
“We’ve got to take that forward to Saturday now. But Steven Naismith is a big part of that. Obviously, it enabled us to go back to our old shape, as well and we all knew our roles. It was back to what it was like before all the injuries.
“Steven brings not just great quality but great experience to the side. It’s good to have him playing up alongside me again.
“Listen, he’s got so much quality and you hear him talking all the time. He wants me talking to him all the time too and that means we always know where we’re going to be, in relation to each other, on the pitch, which is a big help.
“He’s so smart. He’s a player who has been there, done it, played at the highest level and he took his goal against Hamilton well and he set me up for one when I probably should have done a bit better with. And he had another chance himself.
“So we are a lot closer to what we want to be. We need to take that forward again now.
“We’re back to our old shape, back to our old ways, dropping off, getting runners going in behind. And you know what? It felt great to play in, as well. It was more enjoyable.”