It might have been lacking in goals and genuine quality, but if last night’s raucous gathering at Tynecastle is anything to go by, it’s safe to say the Edinburgh derby remains one of the most captivating spectacles in Scottish football.
Football purists such as Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola, who like to see pretty patterns weaved on the ground, would be well-advised not to bother watching a re-run of this blood-and-thunder showdown. Just like the two previous Edinburgh derbies this season, the 2013 New Year renewal of hostilities between the two Capital clubs certainly wasn’t one for the neutrals across Britain who might have been tuning in to Sky Sports hoping to be treated to some vintage passing football.
However, for all its shortcomings in terms of quality, the sense of occasion surrounding the Edinburgh derby remains undiminished. If anything, this great rivalry has become even more intense than ever in the wake of the big one at Hampden last May. Hibs’ improvement this term, allied to Hearts’ struggles on and off the field, has made for a far more evenly-matched fixture than in the three years of maroon dominance leading up to the Tynecastle side’s 5-1 demolition of their city rivals in the Scottish Cup final.
With Hearts languishing ninth in the SPL, having been depleted further by the loss of another Hampden hero in Ryan McGowan on the eve of this fixture, and Hibs at full strength and boosted by their Scottish Cup win over Hearts last month, and their weekend victory over SPL leaders Celtic, it was little surprise that the green and white army were in buoyant mood as they bounced to their heart’s content in the Roseburn Stand in the lead-up to kick-off. “Judging by my tweets and texts, there are quite a few bevvied people in Edinburgh,” tweeted the Chicago-based, Hibs-supporting author, Irvine Welsh an hour or so before kick-off. And those “bevvied people” helped create a rousing atmosphere.
The Hearts end had been pretty subdued until ten minutes before kick-off, when a banner reading “19/05/12” – the date of the Scottish Cup final, for anyone who has been living on the moon – was unveiled in the Wheatfield Stand. The noise of appreciation from the rest of the home support nearly took the roof off the place, and from then on, everyone in both ends was totally wired for action.
There was needle on the park as well. There’s no love lost between the two captains, Marius Zaliukas and James McPake, and the shake of the head and look of disgust from the Hearts skipper after he’d pressed flesh with his Hibs counterpart suggested McPake had said or done something to rile him further.
This was the first time Hibs had entered the lion’s den since their cup final humiliation. If they were to have a chance of emerging unscathed, it was imperative that survivors from that day in May, such as manager Pat Fenlon, McPake and talisman Leigh Griffiths, didn’t let the inevitable goading from three sides of the stadium get under their skin. To their credit, they didn’t.
The first chant about Leigh Griffiths, pictured, resembling a thumb, went up after less than two minutes. It is on powder keg nights such as this that many expect the occasionally-tempestuous striker to snap. He didn’t flinch an inch, though, and, admirably, waited until full-time to give a retort to his mockers, duly pointing both thumbs up to the Wheatfield Stand as he took off his strip to reveal a t-shirt, bizarrely, advertising a company called City Roofing.
Earlier, Griffiths had berated team-mate David Wotherspoon for diving when he could have stayed on his feet and created an opportunity while, further emphasising his new-found maturity, he was the first player on Twitter afterwards to condemn the Neanderthal in the Hibs end who sullied the occasion by spitting on a Hearts ballboy as he tried to retrieve the ball from the away end.
In terms of impressing on the field, Griffiths was given little opportunity until the closing minutes as a new-look Hearts defence marshalled him superbly. Indeed it was a night when both rearguards were outstanding, although the Hibs one was by far the busiest, particularly after the break.
This was a night when the old adages about Hearts being a big physical team and Hibs being soft centred were disproved.
The only members of Hearts’ starting XI who could be considered “big and physical” were Dylan McGowan – who was excellent at centre-half – Darren Barr, Zaliukas and John Sutton, while, of the team that finished the game, half of Hearts’ outfield players were in the youth team last season. Indeed, this time it was Hibs who were reliant on brute force, with the likes of McPake, Ryan McGivern, Tim Clancy and Gary Deegan providing the type of bite and character they needed to emerge unscathed from a challenging night at Tynecastle.
Before the interval, it was all about flashpoints, high balls and meaty tackles, rather than goalmouth incident. Willie Collum is widely renowned as an over-fussy ref who likes to get his cards out. He certainly wasn’t that way inclined last night. Eoin Doyle could have been booked for clattering Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald, while Ryan Stevenson was fortunate to escape a red card for his rash lunge at McPake. Collum could also have given Hearts a penalty when McPake appeared to take out Scott Robinson as he burst into the box in the lead-up to the best chance of the first half, which Andrew Driver drove wide.
Robinson, a surprise starter in support of Sutton, was one of the game’s brighter players before the break, but, ironically, it was his enforced substitution early in the second half which allowed Hearts to really seize the upper hand, with teenager Jason Holt coming on to provide renewed impetus in the final third.
Holt and Mehdi Taouil were the only two players who looked able to create space for themselves and find some finesse amid the bedlam, and this allowed the hosts to get on top of their visitors in what was a much livelier second half. In fact, as the pressure grew, and, one by one, John McGlynn’s substitutions gave them an increased threat, it seemed inconceivable that Hearts wouldn’t eventually eke out a winner.
Hibs remained a live danger, however, with Doyle, Griffiths and Wotherspoon all going desperately close to securing what would have been a smash-and grab-victory. The visitors’ admirable defiance was summed up by the effort of McGivern to get back and stop Holt netting with nine minutes left after the Hearts youngster had got himself into a brilliant position and beaten keeper Ben Williams.
In the closing stages, the game could have gone either way, although the Hibs fans were undoubtedly happier to hear the full-time whistle.
It might not have been pretty, but it spoke volumes for the highly-charged nature of the match that barely a soul had left before the end and that both sets of supporters remained on tenterhooks right to the death.
It has its naysayers, but for those whose passions lie with either of the two clubs, the Edinburgh derby is out on its own as the most rabble-rousing and alluring fixture on the calendar.