It was only a few months ago that demoralised Hearts fans were desperate for this testing season to end.
Yet as 3600 delirious Jambos partied in Easter Road’s South Stand for more than 15 minutes after their team’s hard-fought victory over Hibs had concluded, it was hard to escape the feeling that the buoyant Gorgie outfit would probably sacrifice their summer holidays if it meant they could prolong the remarkable and totally unforeseen feelgood factor which has visited the club over the past month or so.
“The season is ending too soon for us,” said Callum Paterson after he had headed the first-half double that ensured Hearts a fourth Edinburgh derby win in the one season for only the second time since 1903-04, the other occasion in which they have achieved this feat in the last 110 years being the 2011-12 campaign.
While most other teams in the Premiership are either going through the motions or struggling to pick up the points they need to meet their respective targets, Hearts are riding the crest of a wave. Yesterday’s triumph made it three league victories in a row for the first time since Jim Jefferies’ side won six on the spin in winter 2010.
They have now taken 13 points from a possible 15, a run which began with the 2-0 win over their floundering city rivals four weeks previously. No team in the country has taken as many points as Gary Locke’s side have accumulated over the past five games.
After a harsh autumn and winter, this young Hearts side is positively flourishing in the spring. It says much about the mood among everyone at Hearts right now that the confirmation of their relegation amid this rousing run has barely diminished the sense of optimism, which has been cranked up further by the news that they are on the brink of exiting administration.
For all the difficulties they’ve had to endure this season, the players, management and supporters are now enjoying some payback for their remarkable efforts in the face of adversity. At full-time yesterday, having withstood a late and dangerous-looking Hibs onslaught, the sweat-soaked but jubilant Hearts players and management gathered in front of their merry-making supporters for a well-earned party as the home end emptied rapidly. Mutual respect and pride were running through the veins of everyone maroon as players ripped off their shirts and tossed them into the crowd.
Given all they’ve had to contend with, it’s a feat in itself that Hearts even won one of the five derbies this season, never mind four. Especially as they’ve been underdogs in all of them in the eyes of the bookmakers. “To come away with four wins out of five against a Hibs team who have plenty of players to choose from, unlike us who don’t have much in the way of reserves, is a great achievement,” added Paterson.
A further feather in this young Hearts team’s cap – there was only one outfield player over 22 wearing maroon yesterday – is that they would have the same number of points as Hibs if it wasn’t for the 15-point deduction they incurred at the start of the season.
Granted, that says as much about how poor Hibs have been this season as it does about how well Hearts have done.
It was clear upon arrival at Easter Road yesterday that the away support had more appetite for this match than their relegation-haunted hosts, who turned out in significantly reduced numbers compared to the New Year derby when Hibs looked to be heading in the right direction following a bright start to Terry Butcher’s reign.
That January night, less than four months ago, when beleaguered Hearts were penned into their own half for long periods by a buoyant Hibs side seems a long time ago now. In many ways the tables have turned. The Easter Road side are a fragile lot these days, reminiscent to what Hearts were when they could hardly buy a win back in those difficult autumn days.
Hearts fans – who sang the name of Sandy Jardine throughout a touching minute’s applause for both their ex-player/manager and Margo MacDonald, the Hibs-supporting politician – sensed from the outset that this was a chance to compound their rivals’ fears of being sucked into a relegation play-off.
The team responded well, making a confident and assured start compared to Hibs, who looked tentative and nervy. While Butcher’s side were rushed into panicked and aimless clearances, their visitors, with Scott Robinson particularly prominent, stroked the ball about with assurance in the early exchanges, albeit unable to get their central striker, Dale Carrick, into the game. That is no slight on the selfless little hitman, who ran himself into the ground for the good of the team.
However, while Carrick was the hero the last time the sides locked horns, this time the glory went to Paterson, a teenager who knows all about being asked to lead the Hearts attack after ploughing the lone furrow himself for much of the first half of the season.
Having been moved to right-back since the emergence of Carrick as an accomplished goal poacher in recent months, Paterson’s chances of bulging the net again this season looked to have been diminished. Not so.
After a tight opening half hour in which Hibs had eased their way into the game without ever really looking like scoring, Hearts, who had hitherto failed to carve a clear opening, took the lead in 37 minutes. Billy King, starting his first derby match, swung over a corner and Paterson rose to power down a header which seemed to find the net in slow motion after bouncing up and eluding a few bodies on its way in. The Hearts players ran to their dugout and celebrated en masse, while Locke pumped his fists towards the away end, where all manner of delight-fuelled chaos was unfolding.
And just four minutes later, the Jambos were in dreamland. After a free-kick was softly awarded against Hibs left-back Ryan McGivern just a few yards from the corner flag, Kevin McHattie, another impressive performer for Hearts, curled in a cross which was firmly headed home by Paterson. Remarkably for the 19-year-old, who has never been considered an out-and-out striker, this was his ninth goal of the season.
Such was the sense that Hearts were in full control by now, their fans even sarcastically cheered the Hibs players back out on to the pitch at the start of the second half. It wasn’t to be quite so straightforward after the break, though. Hibs, driven by a sense of urgency, seemed to find an extra level of intensity as they chased salvation, and Hearts, in turn, dropped worryingly deep. The influence of the banned Jamie Hamill, so often a galvanising figure when things get tough for Hearts, was missed as the hosts started to swarm forward.
When the determined Jordon Forster eventually headed one back for Hibs midway through the second half, Hearts were faced with a real test of character. It was one they might have failed earlier in the season, but through impressive and organised defending, allied to a touch of good fortune when James Collins fluffed a close-range chance, they generally kept Hibs at bay, with Dylan McGowan, who has benefitted from being moved to right-back to his preferred position of centre-half, particularly assured and dominant.
Indeed it was a magnificently-weighted pass from the burgeoning Australian which sent Ryan Stevenson scampering clear down the left channel in the last minute. The 29-year-old cut in and looked all set to put the seal on the victory, but his angled dink over Ben Williams drifted agonisingly past the far post.
This failure to kill the game off meant Hearts had to endure a fraught six minutes of additional time in which Hibs knocked on the door. In the end, the nervy finale merely added to the sense of euphoria when the whistle sounded on Hearts’ fourth – and arguably most joyous – derby victory of this rollercoaster season. The dark clouds have disappeared and these heady days show no sign of abating for a club now coursing with positive energy.