Esmael Goncalves: Hibs can fight but Hearts aren’t scared

Esmael Goncalves is relishing tonight's cup replay. Pic: Ian Georgeson
Esmael Goncalves is relishing tonight's cup replay. Pic: Ian Georgeson
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Hibs’ tenacity and aggression at Tynecastle ten days ago left a lasting impression on Hearts. Don Cowie spent the intervening period nursing bruised ribs after a forceful Darren McGregor challenge. Others learned that, to survive an Edinburgh derby, physicality is paramount.

Esmael Goncalves was one of nine Hearts players sampling the Capital rivalry for the first time in the 0-0 Scottish Cup fifth-round stalemate. Tonight’s replay in front of a capacity Easter Road crowd will be no less uncompromising. It is not a tie for the fainthearted.

Goncalves was denied by Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano in the early stages at Tynecastle

Goncalves was denied by Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano in the early stages at Tynecastle

Goncalves offers an opinion on Hibs from that first game which contrasts the traditional stereotype of flair and panache. Perhaps styled in the image of manager Neil Lennon, they are described by Goncalves as a team of fighters who will try to hustle and unsettle their guests from across the city again.

“They are aggressive with a lot of fight. I don’t think they play good football. They know how to fight and that’s good but I don’t think this is playing football,” said the Portuguese striker, who joined Hearts last month in a £175,000 transfer from the Cypriot club Anorthosis Famagusta.

“It helps me because when I played against them at Tynecastle I didn’t know what kind of game they play. Now I know. The pitch is also better there so I think it will be a better game.”

Goncalves is an emotive footballer who thrives on the intensity of Scottish football, one of the reasons he was so keen to return to these shores following a brief loan spell at St Mirren in 2013. His time in Cyprus was hardly a stroll in the Mediterranean sun, however.

Derbies on the small island can be ferocious and fiery. Anorthosis against Omonoia carries as much hype and danger as any. The forward admitted it was not always a fixture kept under control.

“We were losing 1-0 at half-time against Omonia and the fans came inside. They were on the pitch, I don’t know why, they just wanted to fight. I hope there is nothing like that tonight,” he laughed. “The 
atmosphere is good in the Edinburgh derby, I like this. I like the people shouting. It was like that a lot in Cyprus. When it’s a derby in Cyprus, there is a full stadium and it’s a little bit like Scotland.

“I think it’s very aggressive there, you know. When the fans got on to the pitch, it was a little bit dangerous. When you’re a player there, you must be ready for anything.”

That steely resolve will serve him well in Leith, too. Hearts haven’t beaten Hibs in six attempts since their 2-1 victory at Tynecastle in August 2014. Tonight’s encounter will be played to a finish though, even if that means extra-time and penalties. The winner will then face Championship club Ayr United at home in the quarter-final and will be strong favourites to progress to the last four.

Goncalves has two goals in four Hearts appearances thus far, both against Motherwell at Fir Park, and is eager to add his name to the new club’s pantheon of Edinburgh derby heroes such as Wayne Foster, John Robertson, Mark de Vries and Phil Stamp. He won’t put personal success before the team and is aware that getting through a tricky replay is all that matters this evening.

“I like derby games. It’s good to score in these matches but it’s more important to win and take the fans with us. I hope I score but the most important thing is that we go through to the next round,” he explained.

Frustration from an underwehelming Hearts display in the first match is still lingering – topped up at the weekend after a disappointing 1-1 home draw against the Scottish Premiership’s bottom club.

“It was frustrating because drawing with Inverness stopped our improvement,” said Goncalves. “We are disappointed but we must keep working hard. We want three points so, when we get one, it’s difficult. When Saturday was finished we didn’t look back, we focused on Hibs and worked towards this game.

“We must be strong at Easter Road. Even if we lose a goal, it’s not finished. We still have time to come back. Of course the first goal is important because then you control the game easier.”

It is unclear whether he will be partnered up front by the giant American Bjorn Johnsen, who is nursing a hamstring problem which cut short his involvement against Inverness. His fitness is likely to have a major bearing on the Hearts team selected by head coach Ian Cathro. Hibs are again expected to deploy a four-man diamond midfield and use the imposing figure of Grant Holt up front.

Both clubs are determined to sustain dual aims of a league challenge and a run-in the Scottish Cup. For Hibs, it could be argued that promotion from the Championship back to Scotland’s top flight after a three-year absence is more important than lifting the cup. Particularly since they ended their 114-year wait for this trophy last May by beating Rangers in the final at Hampden Park.

Hearts are similarly motivated to secure European football for a second successive year since they returned to the Premiership. Dumping their Edinburgh rivals and the holders out of the national cup competition would be an added bonus and a welcome way to end that six-game winless sequence in the derby.

“I don’t think this is the biggest game but it’s a big game,” said Goncalves.

“I know about the rivalry here and it’s a big game. Hibs are in the second league but they still have that rivalry. I know it’s a big night.”

Such occasions demand strong hearts. Goncalves has garnered enough experience of Hibs and enough knowledge of other derbies to know what is required.