Can Hearts or Hibernian snatch one of the two top places in the Premiership? We’re talking second spot, of course - winning the league might just be beyond our capital aspirants. But splitting Celtic and Rangers, that would still be something.
When they’ve been in the same division, this pair have viewed positions one and two as their personal property: permanent, inviolable and non-negotiable. If we think of Scottish football as being like a museum exhibit of a perfectly preserved sitting-room from yesteryear - and really, why wouldn’t we? - then the title and the runners-up spot are the wally dugs on either end of the mantelpiece, chintzy but supercilious, with signs underneath: “Do not touch. Loaned by kind permission of the Old Firm.”
Splitting the Old Firm is extremely difficult. Some regard attempting it as a futile pursuit, like splitting hairs. If it ever did happen, the shock and awe would be similar to 1960s crooner PJ Proby splitting his breeks, an incident which got him banned from British theatres and cancelled by TV. Really, splitting the atom seems easier than breaking up the duopoly.
But it could happen this season. That’s what they’re saying. Celtic by their standards have made a shockingly poor start. Rangers quickly lost their invincibles tag from last season and have so far been unconvincing. Hearts and Hibs have both begun perkily.
“Perspective! Perspective!” I hear you cry, and some is required. Rangers will probably turn ruthless again. Celtic will presumably sort out their defence. Normal service is likely to be resumed.
And let’s not get too carried away regarding the Edinburgh clubs’ progress: Hibs go into their game today having taken four points from their last two at home when it could just as easily have been one from six. Hearts, in reminding everyone they’d gone unbeaten against three of the previous campaign’s top four as they looked forward to a sequence of less challenging matches, promptly went up to Ross County and had to come from behind to draw.
Celtic hit the bar three times against Dundee United. Now if they’d won, and they win again this afternoon and Hibs lose, then the Hoops would be leading the Hibees on goal difference, one set of wannabe usurpers suddenly back in their box, the “slump” almost forgotten. And who are the Leith team playing again? Are they likely to suffer their first league defeat?
Rangers at Ibrox will be a test, just as it will be for Hearts in a fortnight’s time. Both Edinburgh clubs can win cups - Hearts would have done last season but for a penalty shootout not going their way and Hibs should have done only to have their sweets stolen by big, bad St Johnstone - but the Premiership is long-distance and can leave the rest puggled and some way back. Come the end, the Old Firm can usually turn a traditional Edinburgh greeting back on Hibs and Hearts: “You’ll have had your second place.”
To achieve it, beating Celtic or Rangers during the course of the season has been preferable, beating both desirable, while trundling back along the M8 with three points has never been something to be sniffed at.
The last time Hearts were runners-up - 2005-06 - they defeated both halves of the Old Firm. When they did it in 1991-92 a win at Parkhead, Scott Crabbe and John Millar scoring, was the pick of three victories over the Big Two. In 1987-88, second place was greatly aided by beating Celtic at home and Dave McPherson and John Robertson netting in an Ibrox success. In 1985-86 they should have bypassed second place and seized the title so it’s not surprising there were four wins over the Old Firm, two in Glasgow, Robbo again scoring the decisive goal against Celtic while John Colquhoun’s double sent the grumpy Govan hordes diving for the subway early.
To emphasise the requirement for getting the better of the Old Firm to achieve second, Hearts also split the rivals in 1989-90 but came third, having failed to record a victory over either of them.
Hibs have been runners-up on fewer occasions. They did perform the feat two years in a row although this was pre-history before reconstruction and the ten-club top flight. With teams only playing each other twice, Rangers were beaten in 1973-74. Once during the following season Eddie Turnbull got the better of Jock Stein and there was also a prized win at Ibrox, Joe Harper grabbing the winner.
No under-appreciated, weeble-wobble, dead-eyed poacher today, of course, but I think Hibs fans given the choice would rather beat Rangers at Hampden next month if Jack Ross’ men could go on and lift the League Cup. What’s more, I reckon Ross, after last season’s huge disappointments in the knockout competitions with the Old Firm nowhere to be seen, would as well.
Hearts? Realistically, they’ve not got second in their sights either. Supporters will be delighted with a European place which translates as an above-the-wee-team place. Edinburgh raiding Glasgow, breaking into the museum and nicking one of the wally dugs, is a good story but that’s all it is.
Here’s a prediction, though: Hearts, because of Craig Gordon, Liam Boyce, Beni Baningime, Ben Woodburn and John Souttar, will finish third to Hibs’ fourth. Souttar’s long injury weakened Hearts and I think the enforced absence of Christian Doidge will stifle the Hibees, leaving some of the faithful feeling they maybe should have loved him more, just like Wee Joey when hairs, the atom and breeks were split asunder.