For the first time since August 2012, Hearts can enter an Edinburgh derby bursting with a genuine sense of bravado.
On that summer’s day almost two years ago, the Jambos headed to Easter Road in buoyant mood on the back of a 2-0 win over St Johnstone in their first game of John McGlynn’s reign, while Hibs had been trounced 3-0 at Tannadice on the opening day of the season.
More pertinently, it was the first derby since the 5-1 Scottish Cup final less than three months previously, and Hearts supporters, who were hellbent on lording it, expected another big victory. In the end, they were left frustrated as Hibs fought back to earn a point, with Leigh Griffiths cancelling out Andrew Driver’s opener.
That result set the teams moving in opposite directions, with Hibs going on to enjoy mid-table security and an unbeaten season in the derbies, while Hearts toiled and finished in tenth place ahead of their lurch into administration.
With the Tynecastle club in a catastrophic state and Pat Fenlon seemingly having added a bit of much-needed steeliness to Hibs’ play, the feeling in the city last summer was that the green half of Edinburgh were about enjoy a sustained period of bragging rights over the beleaguered Jambos.
It hasn’t exactly transpired that way. Hearts have, inevitably under the circumstances, been relegated, but this season has been nowhere near as depressing as it could have been for them. For all that their supporters had to get used to lengthy winless streaks in the first half of the season, it has been a campaign with no shortage of uplifting moments.
If the club, as expected, secures its survival in the next month or two, it will have been as good a season as anyone at Hearts could reasonably have hoped for.
By contrast, things couldn’t have been much worse across the city. Aside from an impressive burst of form just after Terry Butcher took the helm amid a blaze of expectation in November, it has been thoroughly wretched stuff. That winter run, which brought just one defeat in nine, incorporated their only derby victory, on 2 January. However, it is the other three clashes with Hearts, which all ended in defeat, that have typified Hibs’ calamitous campaign.
Remarkably, for Hearts, as well as being able to intensify Hibs’ fears of ending up in a relegation play-off this Sunday, a win would mean they would have exactly the same number of points as their city rivals if it wasn’t for their crippling, administration-induced 15-point deduction.
To anyone who has only been watching Scottish football for the past few months, in which Hearts have flourished and Hibs have been meek, that state of affairs wouldn’t come as a great surprise. However, it is important to remember that Hearts started the season with only four proven professional footballers in Jamie MacDonald, Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Hamill and the 21-year-old Danny Wilson. The jury was still out on all of the other players and it wouldn’t have been a great surprise if, as a team, Hearts had been completely out their depth in Scotland’s unforgiving top flight.
Hibs, by contrast, looked pretty strong on paper, with the bulk of the squad already having proven themselves as good, reliable players at this level. A top-six finish was the minimum expectation, while second place was even mooted as a possibility back in the summer. Yet now they find themselves on the brink of the ultimate humiliation: being relegated in the same season they should have been glorying in their doomed rivals’ demise.
Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the fact Hearts head into the last derby of the season in more buoyant mood than their rivals is the fact that bookmakers have priced Hibs up at odds-on for Sunday’s game, with Hearts available at a whopping 7/2. They say the bookies rarely get it wrong, but surely they have on this occasion. Even accounting for the fact Hibs need the win more than Hearts – a factor that can often skew the odds – there has to be a big question mark over whether Butcher’s team, with no feelgood factor on their side, can handle the pressure of having to beat their rampant rivals, who should have all their key men except Jamie Hamill available and are now playing with joie de vivre.
With confidence drained and all the genuine pre-match optimism likely to be emanating from the away end, Hibs’ bedraggled players are facing their biggest test of character of the season. If they lose on Sunday, it’s hard to see how they can recover in time to save their bacon.