For the first time in 20 years, an Edinburgh derby league match was played out in front of more than 20,000 fans and none of them could claim to have been short-changed in what was an exhilarating renewal of hostilities at a rumbustious Easter Road.
In the two decades since more than 24,000 people packed into Tynecastle for the 1994 New Year derby, this fixture could never lay claim to being the prettiest in world football. However, what it lacks in finesse, it usually makes up for in tension, drama, hostility and flashpoints, and last night’s showdown was no different, with both sets of highly-charged supporters utterly transfixed from start to finish.
The only regret is that, with Hibs climbing into the top six and Hearts now 16 points adrift at the foot of the Premiership and staring at relegation to the Championship, this could well be the last Easter Road derby for the best part of two years – at least. Having become the country’s showpiece match over the last two seasons in the absence of the Old Firm derby, Scottish football can hardly afford to lose another fixture which generates such widespread intrigue.
Not that the jubilant Hibs fans will have shed any tears at the prospect of waving farewell to their pesky visitors for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the delirious green-and-white hordes, predictably enough, gloried in their bitter rivals’ continued demise as their team’s effective new high-tempo up-and-at-‘em approach under Terry Butcher’s charge ultimately proved too much for a young but spirited Hearts side.
For all the Hibernian merry-making at the end of this riveting derby match, though, the Hearts supporters, as embattled as they are, were in no mood to feel sorry for themselves. From the first whistle, they sang loudly and proudly. Gary Locke’s side had to soak up incredible amounts of pressure as Butcher’s fired-up Hibees peppered the Hearts goalmouth with shots and crosses. Incredibly, every outfield Hibs player had a shot on goal in the first half. The Hearts players, however, stood firm until after the interval.
Indeed, there was a spell, just after they equalised, when Hearts looked the likelier side to nick a third derby win this season as the stunned home fans fretted over the dreaded possibility of suffering yet more agony at the hands of their noisy neighbours. Had Hearts managed to sneak a winner, the South Stand containing their supporters would probably have collapsed under the welter of delirium. The joy of merely equalising was enough to have some jubilant Jambos scampering across the pitch, with things briefly threatening to turn nasty as a few Hibs fans tried to get on for an impromptu scrap. It wouldn’t be an Edinburgh derby without a bit of off-field chaos, though, would it?
In the end, it was the three stands of Easter Road containing home supporters which were left shaking to the sound of victory, with Liam Craig’s penalty paving the way for one of those emotion-charged renditions of Sunshine on Leith at full time. The bulk of the Hearts support stayed behind to applaud what was a resilient, and occasionally rousing, display from a young team who, despite their admirable efforts, are now finding the going ominously tough at Premiership level.
Hibs, by contrast, look like they’re only going from strength to strength under Butcher. On the day he was unveiled in mid-November, the manager spoke of his desire to see Easter Road packed to the gunnels again with fans enjoying their football and feeling proud of their team once more. He also talked of a need to improve their dismal derby record. At the time, it all seemed a touch ambitious, but if last night’s full-house frolics in Leith were anything to go by, the Butcher revolution is very much in full swing.