Eamonn Bannon believes Hearts boast an aura of superiority over Hibs which can help them maintain their stunning start to the season in this Sunday’s Edinburgh derby.
The 56-year-old had two fruitful spells as a midfielder at Tynecastle – one in the 1970s and the other between 1988 and 1993 – before a brief stint as a player-coach at Hibs towards the end of his career.
Continuing to keep abreast of his two hometown clubs’ fortunes by covering their respective home games in his role as a correspondent for the Press Association, Bannon feels Hearts have established themselves as a dominant force in the Capital’s showpiece match, particularly over the past 30 years or so. From the evidence on offer so far this season, with free-scoring Hearts nine points clear at the top of the table and 14 points ahead of Hibs, he doesn’t envisage a power shift beginning at Easter Road this Sunday.
“There is a sense of dominance and expectation about Hearts when it comes to a derby,” he told the Evening News. “That’s been going on since my second spell playing with Hearts. It’s been a long run of Hearts basically dominating Hibs. Hearts have had the better team more or less right through the 80s, 90s and Noughties and it’s still continuing. There have been years when the two teams are pretty closely-matched, but more often than not, Hearts are a stronger and better team and they win more derbies as a result.
“The first time I played for Hearts, in the 1970s, they weren’t dominant at all. We were getting cuffed every time we played Hibs back then. But when I came back to Hearts in 1988 they were on a long unbeaten run against Hibs. We then lost one or two against them and then went on a another long unbeaten run. We certainly dominated Hibs right through my second period. It was the same when I was at Dundee United – it seemed like we used to beat Dundee all the time and it was because we were the better side. Invariably the better side wins through.
“Certainly at this moment in time, Hearts are the better side, there’s no getting away from that. All things being equal, I think they’ll win on Sunday. They know they’re capable of winning there – they won at Easter Road twice last season and they beat them four times in total. The opposite is also true for Hibs – if you haven’t beaten a team much, you’re a bit on the back foot already. The Hearts players are buzzing anyway – they’re on a roll – but the derby record will give them an extra edge.”
While both sides are going into the match buoyed by recent results, Bannon believes Hearts are currently on a different level to a Hibs side still trying to shake off their reputation from previous seasons of being a soft touch. “If it was at Tynecastle, I’d think 100 per cent that Hearts would win it,” he said. “The game being at Easter Road could help redress the balance a little because Hearts have been fortunate on the road a few times. I don’t see Hibs winning it, but it could be a draw. Having said that, Hearts have to be favourites because they have been terrific this season. Every time I’ve seen them, they’ve dominated teams, scored goals and had a good shape about them. I couldn’t really say the same about Hibs. They’ve struggled to beat teams at home.
“They had a couple of good results against Ross County and Rangers, and I think the result against Livinsgton was really important for them.
“The trouble with Hibs is that they’re quite vulnerable. If Hibs score first, I can see it being tight, but if Hearts get their noses in front, Hibs have got an awful habit of capitulating which has really been happening over the last three years or so. Just as winning becomes a habit, losing also becomes a habit. Alan Stubbs’ biggest problem is to try and change that. He’s brought in some decent players and they seem to be on a firmer footing now – winning three of the last five games is good for them, but I would fancy Hearts to win it.”
Bannon believes Hearts’ much-vaunted young wingers, Sam Nicholson and Billy King, will be the key players on the field on Sunday. He feels the burgeoning academy prospects offer the type of quality that Hibs are unable to match. “I love the two wide guys for Hearts,” enthused Bannon. “Nicholson and King are terrific young players who are exciting to watch. They take players on, go at guys and create things. That’s where I see Hearts winning the game. Hibs don’t really have any players like that. They’ve tried various players and various formations, but if they play 3-5-2 against Hearts, it will end up being five at the back on Sunday because King and Nicholson will press them back.”
Despite both being relegated at the end of last season, Bannon detects that there are vastly different moods around the two Edinburgh clubs at the moment, with the Hearts support buoyant and the Hibs fans still a touch disenchanted.
“Hibs have had a torrid couple of seasons,” he said. “Last season, to get relegated from the position they were in was incredible. In January, they looked safe as houses looking to the top end of the league and then they just spiralled out of control. For any Hibs supporter, it would have been horrible to watch.
“Hearts was a different set of circumstances altogether. They had administration and the points deduction, but they went on a great run and finished on a high. They brought in a lot of young talent that blossomed through in the last two or three months of the season. It’s two different stories.”