Hearts’ Alexander set to fulfil lifetime ambition

Neil Alexander. Picture: SNS

Neil Alexander. Picture: SNS

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From the moment boyhood Hearts fan Neil Alexander signed for the Jambos in late June, he couldn’t help but think ahead to August 17th 2014.

After watching starry-eyed from the family stands of Tynecastle and Easter Road as his idol John Robertson used to plunder goals against Hibs on a regular basis, this would be the date on which the 36-year-old goalkeeper would finally get the chance to fulfil his ambition of playing for Hearts in an Edinburgh derby.

Alexander’s hopes were dashed, however, when he collided with hulking team-mate Alim Ozturk in the Championship opener away to Rangers, was stretchered off in a bad way and soon discovered he’d be out for the best part of six weeks with a broken cheekbone.

“That was one of the biggest disappointments when I got my injury, that I was going to be missing the Edinburgh derby,” he recalls. “It was when I was lying in recovery at Ibrox with the doctors when I came off the pitch after lying there in pain. Things would go through my head. I just knew I’d be out.

“When the doctor said ‘You’ve definitely done your cheekbone – you’re going to be out for maybe four to six weeks’, the first thing I thought was I was going to miss the derby.

“It was devastating. It really hurt me hard. We had Hibs, Falkirk, Raith – big games coming up. I’ve been staying away from Alim since it happened, to be honest! Nah, we have a bit of banter about that. It was just one of them things that happens in football. I’ve been lucky in my career not to have too many serious injuries. That was probably one of the worst I’ve had.”

After the “nervewracking” experience of watching from the sidelines as Hearts beat Hibs 2-1 at Tynecastle in August, Alexander will finally get his chance to sample the Capital derby at Easter Road tomorrow. It’s fair to say he is champing at the bit.

“Being able to watch [last time] but not being able to influence the game in any way or do anything about the situations that occurred was really tough,” he said. “But Jack Hamilton came in and did fantastically well, and the boys managed to get a great result.

“To be hopefully fit and healthy going into this – I’m really looking forward to it. It’s one I’ve really wanted to play in. At the minute we’re full of confidence. Hibs are unbeaten in five games now, so they’ll be going into the game full of confidence so it should be a really good game.”

Alexander used to watch the Edinburgh derbies with his dad Jim, who is a Hibs fan. “I just liked to rebel against him, I think, to be honest. It was just a school thing – more of my friends at school were Hearts fans than Hibs fans, so you sort of go with the flow. And it just happened from there. I’ve been a Hearts fan ever since.

“I used to go to the derbies a lot with my dad so from a young age I’ve known a lot about the Edinburgh derby. To be able to play in one is going to be really special.

“From a young age I really enjoyed them, the atmosphere and everything, and giving my dad a bit of stick when Hearts won – and they won more than they lost. It was great.

“I’m really looking forward to fulfilling a dream and being able to say I’ve played in one. I’ve played in an Old Firm derby, I’ve played in an East Anglian derby at Ipswich against Norwich – I’ve played in a few derbies. This is one I’ve not played in, so it will be a good one to tick off when I look back at the end of my career.”

The bulk of Alexander’s memories of watching Hearts in derbies in the late 1980s and early 1990s involve Robbo, currently a youth coach at Riccarton. “I certainly remember John Robertson scoring in a lot of them,” he said. “He was my idol back then and has a great record of scoring against Hibs. Hopefully one of the boys, maybe Osman Sow, can start a good reputation of scoring against Hibs.”

Although Alexander hasn’t featured in a Capital derby yet, he has played at Easter Road. “I’ve got quite a good record there playing for Rangers,” he said. “It’s a nice stadium, the pitch should be good, there’ll be a great atmosphere there, so hopefully it’ll be a good game.”