Hibs’ mini-resurgence coupled with Hearts’ uninspiring form in recent months has given credence to the notion that the Easter Road side will have their best chance in some time of ending their winless derby run at Tynecastle on Sunday.
However, while Hearts have underachieved this season, the Gorgie side still hold all the aces when it comes to derby day. And not just as a result of the confidence which will come from being unbeaten in their last nine Capital collisions.
While they have struggled to perform consistently this season, Hearts these days can generally be considered a big-game team. With the exception of the 4-0 defeat at home to Celtic last month, Hearts, in recent times, have been more inclined to let themselves down in the lower-key matches. By contrast, when pressed into high-octane battle with the likes of Rangers, Celtic or Hibs, the Hearts players have rarely been found wanting in the past few seasons, as highlighted by their recent win at Ibrox on the back of some poor form against the SPL’s supposed lesser lights.
At Hearts, there is a core group in particular who have a knack of coming to the fore when derby bragging rights are at stake.
While Hibs are enjoying some green shoots of recovery under Pat Fenlon, their likely starting XI on Sunday will be almost bereft of players who know what it is to savour Edinburgh derby delight. Hearts, by contrast, are top-heavy on players who generally excel in Edinburgh’s showpiece fixture.
Who to start with? Andy Webster is as good a man as any. The centre-back, who is likely to assume the captaincy in the absence of Marius Zaliukas on Sunday, has scored in both derbies this season and has generally excelled in this fixture since coming back to Tynecastle just over a year ago.
Indeed, after an indifferent start to his second stint at the club, it was a game at Easter Road almost a year ago in which Webster reminded Jambos of his quality as he magnificently marshalled ten-man Hearts to a 2-2 draw after Zaliukas had been sent-off in the first-half. He scored his first derby goal in another 2-2 draw in Leith in April 2004.
Another of those who visibly relishes getting his teeth into Hibs is the irrepressible Rudi Skacel. The Czech scored in his first derby in 2005 and then went on to score another two against Hibs in his first season. Hearts scored four goals in each of the three derbies that Skacel scored in that campaign. He toiled to make an impact against the Hibees upon returning to Hearts last season, but normal service was soon resumed when he smashed home a brilliant strike at the end of the most recent meeting between the teams. The fact Skacel is generally hated by the Hibs fans merely heightens his desire to pile on the misery.
Another Hearts player who rarely fails to prosper in the face of Hibernian vilification is Ian Black. The man the Hibs fans love to hate has been Hearts’ dominant figure in recent derbies, with his display in the New Year’s Day game, which saw him “paint Easter Road maroon,” a particular standout.
Stephen Elliott hasn’t scored as many goals as he would have liked since joining Hearts in summer 2010, but it says a lot about his penchant for the derby that he broke his scoring duck in a comprehensive 2-0 win at Easter Road last season, before following it up with a late equaliser at the same venue 11 months ago. With two goals from his four games against Hibs, the Irishman will fancy his chances of re-familiarising himself with the delight of a derby goal on Sunday.
Andrew Driver may have struggled this season to replicate his scintillating pre-injury form of a few years ago, but if anything can bring out the best in the Englishman, it is the presence of Hibs at the other end of the pitch. Driver made a habit of turning in devastating performances in the derby until becoming dogged by injury. He scored his first derby goal in only his second game against Hibs, a 2-0 win at Tynecastle in May 2007.
Indeed, it was a derby goal in a 2-1 win in Gorgie almost two years to the day which remains the highlight of the frustrating three-year period in which the winger’s rapid progress has stalled. Now closer to full match fitness, the scene is set for Driver to inflict more damage on Hibs.
Even if the 24-year-old is unable to produce the goods, recent history suggests there will be no shortage of others in maroon who can be relied upon to protect Hearts’ derby bragging rights.