AS Hearts fans are well aware, there are worse ways to surrender a league championship. But not many.
Jim Jefferies, who played in the Hearts team which were beaten 7-0 at Easter Road in 1973, will remember worse performances by the Tynecastle side in Edinburgh derbies. But not many.
Hibs all but extinguished hopes of Hearts’ dreams of Premier League glory, and the Easter Road support, who arrived fearing this might be their last derby experience for at least a season, departed believing in their team’s ability to remain in the Premier Division. However, this win was merely a bright spark for Hibs fans amongst a season of heartbreak as the Easter Road side were to drop down to the First Division.
In an afternoon of unreconstructed and hamstrung football, Hibs were the source of any quality going and were deserving of victory. John Robertson scored a goal whose execution and circumstances were exceptional even by his standards in this fixture. However, it was Hibs’ second half forward play which carried the day, capped by finishes from Kevin Harper and Barry Lavety which were almost as memorable as Robertson’s. Harper had been restricted to the bench but came on to turn the game with his 80th-minute winner. His fitful career contained few finer passages than the 15 minutes of bright-eyed energy and skill he bestowed on Hibs. Caution – and a reward of less than three points – had been useless for either team. Accordingly, each played three up front. With Grant Murray and Gary Naysmith at full back, Jefferies demonstrated his confidence in Tynecastle’s youthful core of defenders by recalling Paul Ritchie at Dave McPherson’s expense. In Hearts’ back line David Weir, himself just 27, played uncle. At his best, some of Weir’s clearances even looked elegant and it was from one of these that the centre-back found Colin Cameron lurking in the centre circle with a break on in the ninth minute. Cameron veered to the left of Hibs’ box and knocked the ball inside to Jim Hamilton. It was still three against two in his favour, but Hamilton elected to shoot from distance and his effort dropped wide.
That sequence established something of a pattern. Hibs ate up Hearts’ territory, their tackles keener and their 20-year-old derby debutant Grant Brebner the closest the game had to a composed player. However, Hearts were more incisive on the occasions they counter-attacked. A ponderous attempt by John Hughes to emulate Weir was read by Cameron who released Neil McCann but the winger swung his shot across the face of the goal.
It took that waddling assassin Lavety to lift the afternoon’s proceedings and stop Hearts. In the 56th minute he collected a pass on the right, stepped inside Naysmith and made stately progress across the face of Ritchie. With economical backlift the striker clipped a left-foot shot into Gilles Rousset’s far corner from just inside the area. Hearts had just missed a chance – a volley which Stephane Adam sent over – and looked disorientated. Almost immediately Jefferies brought on all three substitutes. Two of these were human beings, the third a man who manages to be something more in the context of these Edinburgh derbies.
Hearts’ equaliser was the 27th goal Robertson has scored in Edinburgh derbies – exactly the same as Ally McCoist’s tally in the Glasgow fixture. And amongst the two veterans’ other similarities was their ability to step outside normality when pursuing the heroic.
Robertson’s goal was almost absurd in its scripting, a bending 25-yard free kick head height to Bryan Gunn’s right with his very first touch.
Not many trump Robertson but Harper found a way. Minutes after entering play the little midfielder began a bobbing diagonal dribble which carried him from the right side of the centre circle to the middle of Hearts’ 18-yard line. As with Lavety’s run no Hearts player offered a searching challenge and Harper had space to pick his spot to Rousset’s right.