FOUR rounds of fixtures take place before the next Edinburgh derby, yet thoughts of January 3 at Tynecastle are already protruding into the mind. Hearts players are eager to atone after surrendering their Scottish Cup at Easter Road, not to mention gain ground on their rivals in the Scottish Premier League.
Six points separate the Capital clubs at the moment with Hibs sitting fourth and Hearts eighth after the weekend. Hearts beat Aberdeen 2-0 on Saturday whilst their neighbours suffered a 3-0 trouncing in Inverness. Potentially hazardous away trips to St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Ross County await John McGlynn and his young team before the end of the month. There is also a home encounter with Dundee United.
However, January cannot come quickly enough for some.
“The derby means everything to us and to lose it that way last week hurt us. When the derby comes round again in a few weeks, hopefully we can make it better,” said Darren Barr, Hearts’ defender-cum-midfielder. “That game means a lot to everybody, not just us. It’s a tough game to win but we want to get a response from losing.
“There is plenty still to play for even though we are out of the Scottish Cup, especially the way the league is. If we keep it tight and get another couple of wins, then we can end up in a really positive position. We’ve got some good players and we’ve just needed to add that finishing touch at times.”
It is possible the Edinburgh clubs could swap places before Hibs visit Tynecastle in the first match of 2013. For that to happen, Hearts must build on their success against Aberdeen and master a level of consistency which has eluded them all season.
“I feel as if the team is playing well but we’re not getting the rewards,” continued Barr. “We only make our own luck and it’s about getting over the final hurdle and putting some wins together. We’ve been stopping and starting. We get one win and try to kick on and we don’t do it. It’s a bit frustrating. We want to make Tynecastle like a fortress.”
His manager shares the exasperation. Indeed, McGlynn is looking to established players like Barr, Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas to stabilise his team and allow younger upstarts to flourish. At 27, Barr is a seasoned veteran in amongst the teenage academy graduates that now dominate Hearts’ first-team squad. He admits the elder statesman status takes some getting used to.
“Fair enough I’m experienced but you’re always still learning,” he said. “I’m 27 and it’s crazy that I’m one of the more experienced ones here. You want these young boys to push you on as well and give you a wee spark. These boys can help you and you can help them, so it works for both sides.”
How much longer it works for Barr is open to question. He is nearing the end of the lucrative three-year contract he signed after arriving at Tynecastle from Falkirk in summer 2010. His future is very much uncertain and Hearts’ financial predicament means they are in no position to negotiate a new deal for now. Barr is coy when asked what he would like to happen at the end of the season.
“I’d rather not speak about it because, at the minute, nothing’s been said to me,” he replied.
“I just want to play for Hearts and play as many games as I can because I know what it’s like not to play. You want to justify your place in the team but there is competition for places. I just want to keep playing.”
His appearance record this year denotes he is a key member of the squad. Barr has started every single Hearts match since McGlynn became manager and played mostly as a holding midfielder rather than in his favoured central defensive role. His job is to act as a spoiler, breaking up opposition attacks and starting the ball rolling from deep.
“I’ve got experience of it now,” he said. “It helps having boys like Webby behind me, they make it much easier by guiding you. I played in midfield with Blackie last year and we have a good blend going this year. It’s not really my forte to score goals but if I can chip in, so much the better.”
Barr’s one and only Hearts goal remains the crucial opener in last season’s Scottish Cup final, which set the tone for a memorable 5-1 romp against Hibs. He still sports a rather unwanted souvenir from that campaign, though, and one he is struggling to get rid of. Above his left eyebrow is a lump which looks red and fresh, as if the result of a very recent injury. In truth, it is anything but.
“It’s still there since the Auchinleck Talbot game last January, it’s not gone down,” he laughed. “Sometimes it’s prominent, sometimes it’s not. It’s just there all the time. I don’t think my missus is too happy about it, but what can you do?”