Alex Schweitzer Thompson looks at two players who first came head to head in derby a decade ago
On derby day, the outcome of individual battles is often key to determining which players and teams emerge strongest.
With Hibs striker Garry O’Connor back among the goals with a stunning free-kick against Inverness in midweek and Andy Webster appearing to have returned to his imperious best at the centre of the Hearts defence, a one-on-one battle that could emerge as one of the most decisive at Easter Road on Monday will be contested between two players renewing a festive derby rivalry that was first ignited a decade ago.
In an arena featuring two cross-city adversaries, there inevitably exists a host of personal grudge matches and fierce competition between clashing personalities. But, rarely, particularly in modern times, does a head-to-head have the colourful history or longevity of O’Connor versus Webster. The pair are preparing to face each other once more on Monday – ten years after first crossing swords in the city clash. At the turn of the year a decade ago, on December 29, 2001, O’Connor and Webster faced each other for the first time in a competitive fixture. John O’Neil struck a last-minute winner at Tynecastle to snatch a dramatic draw for Hibs after Kevin McKenna had broken the deadlock. Three months later, in March 2002, O’Connor made a significant impact for the first – but not the last – time in the fixture, hitting his first derby goal while Webster was consigned to the substitutes’ bench, but Hearts fought back to win 2-1.
Hibs achieved a similar feat with both players on the pitch in April 2005, O’Connor equalising Hearts striker Lee Miller’s opener at Tynecastle to spark a 2-1 triumph for Hibs. Later that month, the teams reconvened at Easter Road, with goals from both O’Connor and Webster bookending proceedings in a 2-2 draw. Despite being direct rivals on the pitch, the pair have much in common. After beginning their respective careers at the start of the Millennium, they both left the Capital for bigger clubs in the summer of 2006 and, after earning Scotland caps, had their international careers curtailed, albeit for different reasons.
Although he only returned to Easter Road at the start of the current season in summer after five years in Russia and England, O’Connor remains acutely aware of the significance of scoring against Hearts. An early example of his feeling for the fixture is perhaps best evidenced by his wild celebration in the first Easter Road derby of 2005/06. With Hearts fans celebrating an unbeaten league run of 12 games from the beginning of the campaign, two goals in three minutes late on gave Hibs an unexpected victory. For the second Hibs goal, O’Connor escaped the clutches of Steven Pressley and Webster to fire underneath Craig Gordon before roaring with joy and sliding on his knees in front of the old East Terrace.
The 6ft 1in striker expressed similar delight after hitting a last-minute winner in a 2003 derby. Webster failed to get close enough to O’Connor while shadowing his opponent’s run, allowing the Hibs striker to slot under Hearts goalkeeper Tepi Moilanen and win the game with a solitary goal. O’Connor’s menace to Webster and Hearts extended even to the year before. In the 2002 derby of Phil Stamp fame – the former Middlesbrough man striking a late winner in a 2-1 Hearts victory – it was O’Connor’s harrying of a raw, young centre-back that handed Hibs the opening goal. With O’Connor in pursuit, Webster conceded a needless corner. “I didn’t mean to put it out for a corner, but Garry O’Connor was snapping at my heels and I couldn’t get my foot round the ball properly to put it out for a throw,” said Webster afterwards.
Despite his initial difficulty in containing the bustling O’Connor, the Dundee-born Webster finished on the winning team after McKenna’s equaliser and Stamp’s subsequent winner. “To be part of the team which won at Easter Road, particularly in that fashion, was quality; a really superb feeling. To see Phil Stamp get the winner was just unbelievable, a fairytale. And it has to be the highlight of my career so far without a doubt. Derby matches are always very special.”
Ten years on, grinding out a derby victory remains of utmost importance to all those connected to both Capital clubs and the decade-old sentiments of Webster will be echoed by whoever emerges superior from his battle with old foe O’Connor.
■ Garry O’Connor and Andy Webster have faced each other 13 times in the derby, with the Hearts defender enjoying six wins to O’Connor’s three.