The battle for second place in the SPL has so far been a slow burner, with many of the bigger clubs struggling for consistency, but one duel which looks certain to carry no end of intrigue is the race to be Edinburgh’s top dog.
In the previous two seasons, such was the depth of the malaise that had gripped Hibs that it was fairly obvious from a long way out that Hearts would finish above them.
Two seasons ago, the Tynecastle men finished a mammoth 25 points in front of their city rivals, while last term there were 19 points between the sides, with Hearts capping their Capital dominance with the Scottish Cup final demolition in May.
As Hearts celebrated, and Hibs commiserated, it was hard to envisage the Easter Road men recovering from that humiliation to the point where they would have a genuine chance of finishing ahead of their bitter foes this term. But, to their credit, they have.
Three points ahead of Hearts as we approach the end of the first round of fixtures, Hibs have looked the more sure-footed of the two Edinburgh teams so far. Whether they can sustain their promising start to the season remains to be seen, but they have certainly shown enough, particularly with their impressive home form, to suggest that a Hearts side depleted by summer departures will have to work for their money if they are to finish ahead of them for the third year running.
Of course, the mini-battle between the two Capital sides remains a sideshow in relation to the more pressing matter of finishing in the top six, but, given that both clubs don’t usually struggle in the same season, finishing as the top team in the city is usually an indicator of reasonably rude health.
The joust between Hearts and Hibs carries a particular resonance this term, with Hibs’ troubles of the past two seasons having been significantly exacerbated by the fact Hearts have been doing pretty well. As is always the case where local rivalries are concerned, a poor season can be forgiven if you still manage to finish ahead of the enemy – or at least beat them on occasion. But Hibs have been unable to lay a glove on Hearts for some time now, with no wins from the last 12 Edinburgh derbies.
After the embarrassment of May 19th, allied to Hibs’ general poor form, their fans needed something to cling to early this season. In light of what has gone before, sitting ahead of Hearts 10 games in is probably as good as they could reasonably have hoped for in terms of restoring a much-needed feelgood factor to Easter Road.
By the same token, Hearts’ tough start to the season has been made to look that bit worse by the sight of Hibs sitting above them in the league, particularly as Pat Fenlon’s improved side had a healthy six-point cushion going into the recent international break.
With Saturday’s results having seen the gap close to just three points, it looks impossible to call who will enjoy the better season. The smart money remains on Hearts, due to their psychological advantage over their rivals when it comes to consistently getting the better of them, while Hearts have generally been strong finishers to the season. Player for player, however, there is now very little between the teams.
John McGlynn’s side still possess the best defence in the league outwith Celtic and, as they showed on Sunday, are capable of grinding out results without setting the heather alight. Hibs, by contrast, hold all the aces in attack and, with Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle among the top scorers in the SPL, they are entitled to feel they have the firepower to outgun their rivals.
While it is far too early to entertain talk of any power shift in the city, the fact that it looks impossible to split the teams is a small triumph in itself for Hibs. At the risk of jumping the gun, the prospect of a 20-point gap between the sides this time looks extremely far-fetched.