As Hearts lurched into administration back in June, it seemed inconceivable that Hibs wouldn’t go into the first derby of this season holding the upper hand in all departments.
Their fans would have expected to lord it over their crisis-hit rivals, while their team of relatively experienced campaigners would have been expected to rock up at Tynecastle and put the Hearts youngsters to the sword. Yet, somehow, Hibs have managed to relinquish all sense of superiority, and, as a club, will enter this Sunday’s Doom and Gloom derby in a more negative frame of mind than their beleaguered but defiant city rivals.
Pat Fenlon, the Hibs manager, must be wondering how, having had a reasonably strong finish to last season and recruited well over the summer, he now heads into the Gorgie bearpit needing a result to win over disillusioned fans, and possibly even to save his job.
The root cause of all the despondency, of course, remains that alarming 7-0 Easter Road mauling by Malmo. Losing 2-0 in Sweden was no disgrace in itself. Neither was losing 1-0 at home to the second best team in Scotland; plenty others will get beaten more comprehensively by Motherwell this season. But the black and white of it is that Hibs have now played three, lost three, conceded ten and scored none this season. In the frenzied world of modern-day football, Fenlon’s relative progress in the league allied to reaching successive Scottish Cup finals counts for little when such damning short-term stats are available for his growing army of critics to gorge on.
Perhaps fatally for the manager, no-one could have foreseen the prospect of Hearts ever being allowed to sing about 7-0 on derby day, yet that is exactly what they will do this Sunday. In between crowing about 5-1, another huge blemish on Fenlon’s copybook.
It seems safe to assume that Tynecastle would be the last place on earth the Irishman would want to visit while needing a win to ease his predicament. He at least goes there on the back of a five-game unbeaten derby run, but, with his team looking timid and short of confidence against Motherwell, it is hard to imagine them turning up in the west side of the city boasting an air of authority.
The fact the home end will be packed to the gunnels and probably as loud and passion-filled as it’s ever been is unlikely to help Hibs. Neither will the fact the away end is unlikely to be full, with some fans wary of another humiliation at the hands of a team of kids and others of a mind that they’d rather sacrifice this derby if it helps get rid of their manager.
Although most of the pressure would appear to be on the Easter Road side, Hearts, despite having little or no expectations on their shoulders, could do with a win themselves. An army of fans descended on Perth on Sunday more in hope than expectation of seeing the start of the fightback from their 15-point deficit. In the end, they went home rather deflated, with their team having been outclassed by St Johnstone. It was a sobering afternoon for those Hearts players who had spoken in positive terms of beating relegation. Yet, they can’t be written off on the basis of one game against a side full of confidence and at a venue where they have notoriously struggled in recent times. As Michael Stewart said the other day, they are a happier team at home.
The feeling has always been that they would probably have to win one of their first two games in order to spark some early momentum. If they don’t get a result on Sunday, the worry is that the siege mentality might fizzle out and all hope of a fairytale escape from relegation will fade fast. A win on Sunday, however, and the whole thing could snowball. Likewise for Hibs and Fenlon, as it did last year when a hard-fought derby draw on the second day of the season proved the catalyst for a superb run which briefly took them to the top of the table.
Don’t let it be said that the stakes aren’t high.