As Hearts and Hibs hurtled simultaneously and helplessly towards the Championship in the first half of last year, few could have predicted just how quickly and emphatically the turmoil-hit Capital teams would get back on their feet.
Just 18 months after Edinburgh’s big two slipped out of the top flight, it seems reasonable to suggest that relegation was the best thing that could have happened to them. Assuming there are no further unexpected implosions on the horizon at Tynecastle or Easter Road, May 2014 looks like going down as the modern-day nadir for football in Scotland’s capital.
Both Hearts and Hibs have seized their opportunities to rebuild from the ashes and now the city is savouring its most genuine feelgood factor in a decade, with Hearts cruising in second place in the Premiership and Hibs, albeit still in the second tier, boasting their strongest squad in years and in their most consistent form since the turn of the century. Not since the 2005/06 season, when George Burley’s Hearts team challenged the Old Firm at the same time as Tony Mowbray’s swashbuckling young side was earning rave reviews, have supporters of the two clubs been in such buoyant mood at the same time.
They’ve both had their moments in the intervening period, with cup wins and European qualification along the way, but rarely has there been a genuine feeling that both clubs were heading in the right direction at the same time. Even when they locked horns in the country’s showpiece match – the Scottish Cup final – in 2012, this was hardly a vintage time for Edinburgh football. Hibs had just survived relegation, while the financial crisis which would soon engulf Hearts was already beginning to surface in the form of late player payments.
Those dog days look long gone for both of these resurgent clubs. Hearts have been transformed from cash-strapped whipping boys in 2013/14 – they were about to embark on a demoralising 11-game run without a win at this time two years ago – to being a team making relatively easy work of the top flight and within six points of table-topping Celtic a third of the way into the 2015/16 campaign.
Hibs, meanwhile, are enjoying the type of winning run that is alien to most of their supporters. Crucially for a fanbase who have traditionally craved entertainment as much as accomplishment, their impressive run of results, which has them challenging Rangers for the title and in the semi-finals of the League Cup, has been accompanied by easy-on-the-eye football from a group of vibrant young players.
Such is the parochial nature of football, there will be some who claim this can’t be deemed a good time for Edinburgh football simply because Hibs are in the second tier. However, the mood around a football club is not always dictated by league position. For example, Hibs were top of the Premiership under Pat Fenlon just three years ago, but such was the stale nature of the football and the lack of trust in the manager to sustain it, the sense of optimism and excitement among supporters wasn’t as great as it is now, even being second in the second tier, under the revered Alan Stubbs.
There is no escaping the fact there is more of a feelgood factor around Hibs at the moment than at many Premiership clubs. Indeed, there is an argument that the three most buoyant and upwardly-mobile clubs in Scotland at present are Hearts, Hibs and Rangers, all of whom have had to deal with serious setbacks in recent times. Often it can take an instance of a club being knocked off its pedestal in order to escape from a humdrum existence and spark a sustained upturn.
Hearts, after undergoing a major rebuilding job following relegation, now look a team capable of finishing second in the Premiership. Aberdeen, their main rivals, have, temporarily at least, lost their early-season mojo and there is a decent level of strength in depth at Tynecastle. The notion that Robbie Neilson’s fit, powerful and potent side have climbed to their current lofty position without truly excelling suggests that there is more to come when they truly ignite.
Hibs, like Hearts last season, look a Premiership top-six side in waiting. It will still take a big effort to win the Championship title because Rangers are clearly a stronger team than last year and – despite their League Cup defeat at the hands of St Johnstone – look like they would also be reasonably comfortable in the top flight. Hibs have momentum and the belief that they can win the title, but even if they didn’t finish first, their recent League Cup record against top-flight opposition bodes well for their prospects of going up through the play-offs.
While the parochial nature of football rivalry means many Hearts fans would prefer to see Hibs toil, and vice-versa, no-one from the Capital can wish for the sight of the two clubs being dragged through the gutter in the 2013/14 season to become the norm. This is a proud football city and, as a reporter covering both Edinburgh clubs, the citywide optimism is to be welcomed. With long-term planning underpinning their respective revivals, Hearts and Hibs are fast becoming beacons of pride once again. Notwithstanding football’s penchant for unpredictability, the two Edinburgh clubs look like they might be about to reassert themselves at the forefront of Scottish football in the coming years.