Given Hearts’ perennial dominance of the Edinburgh derby and the sense of unbridled optimism building at Tynecastle this summer, there was always a feeling that Sunday’s trip into the lions’ den had come a touch too early in Hibs’ rehabilitation process.
It remains early days, but Hearts now look like a genuinely contented club after all the tumult of the Robinson/Romanov years. They are yet to set the heather alight on the pitch – indeed they could easily have lost both their matches so far had David Templeton and Liam Craig converted first-half opportunities – but already sit joint-top of the Championship with six points from encounters with their two biggest rivals.
They say the mark of a good team is winning when not playing particularly well; in that regard, Hearts are in excellent nick. A winning mentality is of more importance to a title challenge than any swashbuckling football. That said, there remains a feeling that the swagger will come once Robbie Neilson’s young team gel and when up against inferior sides to Rangers and Hibs.
There were momentary hints of what they could be capable of when Morgaro Gomis was able to get some time on the ball and spark the occasional lively passing exchange, although, generally, all the creative players were kept in check until Sam Nicholson’s moment of magic made the difference in a match that look destined to finish goalless.
This was a clash when both defences could be pretty content with their work and when midfielders were required to provide graft rather than guile. When derbies are so tightly-contested and time on the ball so limited, attacking players rarely get a chance to shine. Homegrown young bucks like Jason Holt, Billy King, Danny Handling, Alex Harris and Sam Stanton toiled to impose themselves, while even Nicholson was largely subdued by the impressive David Gray until his late match-defining moment. Likewise, Hearts centre-forward Osman Sow and his Hibs counterpart Farid El Alagui, until his last-minute heroics, were generally kept quiet by some fine defending.
Despite the stuffiness of the match until the last 15 minutes, Hearts, rightly, won’t care a jot about how their victory was achieved. The main thing is that they will rock up in Kirkcaldy on Saturday for their top-of-the-table clash (of sorts) with Raith Rovers boasting an air of authority as they bid to embark on the type of “relentless” winning run that Neilson demands.
Neilson himself was part of the last Hearts side to start a campaign with a rampant run of victories when George Burley’s scintillating side struck fear into the rest of Scottish football in the early months of the famous 2005/06 season. Of course, the current team possesses nowhere near the quality of that side nine years ago but Hearts fans are entitled nonetheless to bask in the euphoria and excitement that will come with seeing their team mount a title challenge.
Across the city, a familiar sense of deflation has returned after a 13th defeat in their last 20 derbies. The doom and gloom needn’t have to linger, however. Alan Stubbs’ side, despite their early-season promise, were always going to be up against it at Tynecastle, but for most of the match they coped relatively comfortably with their hosts. The fact they were undone by a piece of magic and then a penalty shouldn’t undermine all the good work that has been done by the likes of Leeann Dempster and Stubbs to ensure a sound foundation for the club moving forward.
The presence in the starting XI of eight players who were relegated last season is a source of concern to some Hibs fans, but Michael Nelson, Jordon Forster and Lewis Stevenson certainly didn’t look scarred by previous ignominy in green and white as they turned in impressive defensive displays. Midfield pair Liam Craig and Scott Robertson, despite their errors, were good enough to keep Hibs competitive for most of the match in the most hostile environment they will encounter this season. Once Matt Kennedy and Scott Allan are added to the mix, Hibs will be a decent side.
While a title push looks likely to be a step too far, that was always likely to be the case in a division containing a Hearts side significantly further forward in their rebuild and a Rangers team with the means to sign proven players from the top end of Scottish football.
Sunday’s game didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Both Capital clubs are moving in the right direction, the difference being that but Hearts look like getting to their destination that bit quicker.