Anthony Brown: It’s all up for grabs in the biggest derby ever

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THIRTY-TWO days to go. William Hill would be as well planting a giant Scottish Cup final countdown clock on the rocks of Edinburgh Castle because this May 19 collision between Hearts and Hibs is all anyone in the Capital who cares even the slightest bit about football is going to be interested in.

London may be excitedly gearing up for this summer’s Olympics, while the people of Poland and Ukraine are putting the finishing touches to preparations for the European Championships in less than two months.

But for anyone linked to Hearts and Hibs, the biggest show of 2012 will be taking place at Hampden Park next month. In fact, scratch that. It should read the biggest show ever. Make no mistake, this is a life-defining game for fans of Hearts and Hibs. Ask any Hearts supporter to name the best day of their lives and, aside from the birth of their kids and, possibly, their wedding day, most will respond May 16, 1998 – the day Hearts ended their long Scottish Cup drought by beating Rangers. That would be closely followed by the day they beat Hibs 4-0 in the Scottish Cup semi-final six years ago.

Hibs fans, similarly, will rank their League Cup wins in 1991 and 2007, as well as the 7-0 and 6-2 wins over Hearts, up there among their greatest days on planet Earth.

But all those glorious moments would be eclipsed if their team could somehow get the better of their bitter rivals in what must be one of the biggest domestic matches Scottish football will ever stage. There still seems to be a general disbelief across the city that a game of such magnitude is about to take place. I put forward the prospect of an all-Edinburgh final on this page as far back as St Valentine’s Day, when Hearts hadn’t even negotiated their fifth-round clash with St Johnstone, but it was obviously more in far-fetched hope than expectation.

Now that it’s a reality, there is an incredible sense of excitement not just in Edinburgh, but throughout Scotland at the prospect of the country’s end-of-season showpiece being contested by two well-supported bitter rivals who are not Rangers and Celtic.

However, for all the anticipation surrounding the game, spare a thought for the more pessimistic Hearts and Hibs fans who feel sick at the very thought of locking horns with their deadliest rivals in such a cataclysmic game.

Most Hearts fans, buoyed by their remarkable derby record over the years as well as their memories of the last Hampden derby, would have bullishly roared “bring on the Hibees” a few weeks back. But now that it’s actually going to be happening, there is a genuine fear of “what if?” for many. What if they were to be the team that Hibs beat to finally end their 110-year Scottish Cup jinx. They would have to be in the ground while Hibs fans celebrated the greatest day of their lives. In one fell swoop, Hearts’ main source of bragging over their rivals would be obliterated. That thought alone will ensure an uncomfortable month or so for many Jambos.

Likewise, many Hibs fans are, understandably, of a mind that they are going into the final as lambs to the slaughter. The fact they’ve not won a derby in ten, haven’t won the Cup in 110 years, lost 4-0 in the last Hampden derby and are second-bottom of the league affords them little reason for optimism. I’ve spoken to some Hibs fans who admit they don’t know how they’ll manage to haul themselves through the turnstiles when match-day finally arrives. However, even if they have to be inebriated with drink to do so, the prospect of possibly ending one of the most infamous jinxes in football against their old foes will be enough to make sure they make their way along the M8. There are other Hibs fans, however, who are of a mind that this is a one-off shot at the most incredible form of glory for their team and that, given they are going in as underdogs, they have far less to lose than Hearts.

Whatever unfolds, the understandable fear of defeat is bound to wreak havoc with the minds of both sets of supporters. But regardless of their allegiance, everyone who has an interest in Edinburgh football should simply puff out their chests with pride and savour what promises to be a remarkable occasion for the city.