As was the case entering the two previous Edinburgh derbies this season, logic dictates that Hibs should be too strong for Hearts tonight.
The general perception is that the Easter Road side are firmly in the ascendancy under Terry Butcher’s guidance, while Hearts are a beleaguered lot destined for the Championship. At first glance, a comprehensive home win looks on the cards. A closer inspection of the situation, however, would suggest things aren’t quite as clear cut in favour of the Easter Road side.
The bookies certainly don’t think so anyway. Over the past two months, Hearts have been as big as 6/1 and 7/1 for away matches at Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively. Tonight, they are generally available at a more modest 4/1, which is not the price of a no-hoper.
Aside from the fact they have beaten Hibs twice this season, Hearts will be buoyed by having won ten and lost only two of the last 18 derbies. No matter what state Hearts are in, they retain an aura of authority when it comes to derbies. For all that they look destined for relegation, that is due more to their 15-point deduction than outright incompetence.
They have, after all, taken more points than Ross County this season and, despite their toils, their form is no worse than that of County or Partick Thistle. Hearts’ home form has been abysmal over the last four months, with heavy defeats by Celtic and Kilmarnock painting them in a particularly hapless light.
However, they have been a far tougher nut to crack on their travels. Of their last five away games, they have won two, drawn one and lost two. In each of those defeats – against Celtic and Dundee United – they were level at half-time and in with a shout of nicking a point until the last few minutes. They appear to thrive when allowed out of the pressure-cooker that is Tynecastle.
The first of that encouraging five-game away run, of course, was the League Cup success at Easter Road back in October when Ryan Stevenson’s goal gave Gary Locke’s side a totally unforeseen victory.
Although that proved to be Pat Fenlon’s last match in charge of Hibs, the Easter Road side, contrary to perception, were in decent fettle going into that derby, having lost only two of their previous ten. Hearts, meanwhile, were in a worse run of form back then they are at present, having taken only one point from their previous seven league games.
The gulf between the two sides was all too apparent in the first half hour as Hibs totally bossed proceedings and should have been out of sight. The hosts failed to capitalise, Hearts hit them with a sucker punch and Hibs never looked like getting back into the game. Hearts will arrive in Leith tonight buoyed by the belief that, for all that Hibs appear to be gathering momentum and confidence under Butcher, the Easter Road side surely won’t be able to play any better than they did in that one-sided first half hour.
However, the Butcher effect shouldn’t be underestimated. As well as imbuing his players with extra confidence and a more penetrative style, the ebullient Englishman has galvanised the support to the point where there is now a sense of genuine expectation ahead of tonight’s match that wouldn’t usually be so prevalent among a group of fans who have had to endure such a pitiful derby record.
Tonight, though, represents the acid test of Hibs’ mini-revival. The pressure is all on Butcher’s men to make things happen and avoid what would be another humiliation at the hands of their bitter rivals. Hibs will have most of the ball and the onus will be on the likes of Scott Robertson and Liam Craig to try and unlock their stuffy visitors. Hearts are at their most comfortable when little is expected of them as an attacking force. Despite several costly defensive errors this season, their backline usually looks much more secure when the likes of Callum Tapping, Jamie Hamill and Scott Robinson form a shield just in front of them.
Aware that Hibs are short of speed-merchants and prolific scorers, Hearts will be quietly confident of stifling their hosts and nicking something on the break via Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson or Stevenson.
While the Butcher factor automatically makes the hosts look a more imposing proposition than in recent derbies, Hearts remain at their most dangerous when challenged to pierce a bubble of Hibernian optimism.