Another note will be scribbled in the Tynecastle history books this Sunday. Hearts visit Easter Road for the first time ever as league champions, their army of fans doubtless ready to make the most of breaking new ground.
Having already won the Scottish Championship in record time, Robbie Neilson and his players are preparing to walk out as title winners at the home of their greatest rivals. Hearts won titles in 1895, 1897, 1958, 1960 and 1980 but never visited Hibs on league business after being crowned champions. This weekend offers a unique moment for Edinburgh’s maroon half to savour and away tickets are sold out.
The swagger with which Hearts have strutted through this campaign caught everyone by surprise given they only emerged from administration last June. The recovery, for this season at least, is complete with automatic promotion secured at the first attempt. Ironically, it was Hibs’ home defeat by Rangers last month which confirmed Hearts’ title win.
However, the chance to face Hibs at Easter Road as champions is something no Tynecastle player has ever experienced. They are determined to treat the match as a normal occasion even though most Edinburgh derbies are far from run-of-the-mill. This one certainly won’t be. There is no such thing as a meaningless derby, after all.
“We’re just going to treat it like any game. It’s a derby and nobody ever wants to lose in a derby. I know for a fact we’ll want to win it,” said winger Sam Nicholson. “They will also want to win it, so it’s going to be a good game. We’re all looking forward to it and we want another three points.
“Motivation isn’t going to be a problem. Derbies take care of themselves in that sense and both teams are fired up for it. Sometimes it just comes down to who wants it more and sometimes football comes into the equation. It just depends.”
Hearts head across the city also looking to complete an unbeaten season against Hibs. Their win at Tynecastle in August was followed by a draw at Easter Road in October and another in Gorgie at New Year. Now comes the chance to finish the campaign undefeated in derbies.
“We want to maintain that record but the only people who can take care of that are ourselves,” continued Nicholson. “Just because we’re unbeaten, we can’t go out and think that because we’re unbeaten against them that it’ll just stay that way. We need to go out and work to keep that record. Hibs are a good side, they’ve had a decent season and they won in midweek [against Dumbarton]. Both teams seems to be playing with confidence.”
A note of caution must be taken from the last two derbies if Hearts are to prevail on Sunday. They struggled at Easter Road in October and needed a mesmerising 40-yard equaliser from Alim Ozturk in stoppage-time to avoid defeat. At Tynecastle in January, Jamie Walker produced another impressive equaliser after Jason Cummings put Hibs 1-0 ahead.
As the home team chase points in pursuit of a play-off place, the warning signs are clear. Nicholson is comforted somewhat by the fact Hearts have sufficient quality produce the required magic when they find themselves in trouble.
“Even if Hibs were already guaranteed second place, they would still be dangerous opponents,” he admitted. “Last time we went to Easter Road we weren’t at our best. It took a wee bit of quality from Alim to get us a draw and sometimes that’s what you need in derbies. The derby after that at Tynecastle was a hard game for us again and Walker put one in their net to pull us level.
“Sometimes a game can be going against you but if you have that wee bit of quality then it can pull you out of trouble. We have that and it’s good for us. The whole squad has really chipped in with goals. I think our defence has scored more than any other defence in the league, so that’s pleasing. Derbies can be different. Sometimes it’s a battle, sometimes football can be played.”
Nicholson much prefers the latter and concedes that his slender frame is not suited to battling for balls hoofed out of defence.
“In most derbies, the first 15 minutes are just hectic,” he said. “It’s usually ball in the air and winning first and second balls. Sometimes it’s a couple of kicks here and there. After the first 15 or 20 minutes, you find out if it’s going to be a game for you or not. You might need to adapt as a player.
“I definitely prefer if there’s football being played. I’m not the strongest so if somebody leans into me it’s not my best quality. If it turns into a battle, then obviously I’m willing to put my foot in. If you need to take the kicks, then you do it.”
With the kicks comes the usual torrent of verbal abuse players must encounter in derbies across the world. Nicholson is able to shut out carping at Easter Road but admitted he does listen to a few comments at full-time.
“I tend to block it off. I don’t really listen to it till the end of the game. At full-time you hear it and you just sort of brush it off. You’re always focused on the game anyway. You don’t listen to people saying this and that. They want to put you off your game and if you allow that to happen then they are winning.
“I’m never trying to listen. I just focus on the game and thinking about the game plan. I’m not really bothered about people saying stuff because it can happen in the streets anyway. You can be walking down the street and somebody can shout something. You just ignore it.”