NEITHER Hearts nor Hibs would want tomorrow’s Scottish Cup replay decided on penalties, however a historic Edinburgh derby shoot-out remains a realistic prospect.
There has never been a penalty competition to decide a senior match between the clubs. That may change at Easter Road.
Whoever reaches the Scottish Cup quarter-finals will hope to do so after 90 minutes, or 120 if necessary. Only East of Scotland Shield ties between Hearts and Hibs have been decided on penalties so, if tomorrow night goes the full distance, those in attendance would witness a slice of history.
Hearts are fully aware of the connotations. Their late collapse at Tynecastle eight days ago brings them to Leith with a point to prove. They feel the first match should have been closed out successfully, yet Hibs’ late revival provides the home team with the confidence to progress. It may not be straightforward, thus penalty practice in training is an essential part of the preparation.
“It’s something we’ve looked at because we usually do it before cup games, just in case. We do it in training and it’s part of preparing properly,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach. “It’s something that will be part of our preparation for the game, but hopefully it doesn’t go as far as that. We’re disappointed with how the last ten minutes of the first game went but that’s something we spoke about and we just hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Neilson, of course, has experience of pressurised penalty situations as a Hearts player. He converted from the spot in the 4-2 shootout win over Gretna in the 2006 Scottish Cup final. “You just need to score,” he smiled. “It’s great if you go up there, show composure and put it in the back of the net. We’ll prepare properly with set-plays and penalties with the boys but, when you go up there, it’s a different story. It’s about who holds their nerve.”
The plan for Neilson and his Hibs counterpart, Alan Stubbs, is to have the tie over and done with before penalties come into the equation. Hearts are confident that a more sustained effort can see them through and will benefit from not playing at the weekend. Their league match at home to Partick Thistle was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, allowing several players vital recovery time.
“We can definitely get control. We have good players here and we know it’s going to be a tough game,” continued Neilson. “Easter Road is always difficult and it will be an intense atmosphere. It’s something the players are looking forward to and it’s a great opportunity to progress in the cup. We need to go and do what we did for the first hour of the first game and repeat it for the full 90 minutes this time.
“Saturday’s call-off was frustrating. It was about quarter past one, the referee arrived earlier than normal to take a look at the pitch and he called the game off. That gives us another game to re-arrange on top of a few others. It’s going to be a really busy period for us.
“We’ve got the Hibs game, we’ve got Inverness to get rearranged and we’ve now got Partick Thistle to get rearranged. It’s not ideal. We had a full house on Saturday for a game where we hoped to get a result after St Johnstone losing on Friday night. It would’ve been great but we need to accept it and get prepared for the derby now.”
Neilson reported a fully-fit squad, with only captain Alim Ozturk ruled out through suspension. “We’ve got some good players in midfield – Pallardo, Djoum, Buaben, Cowie. We have good wide players like Nicholson, Walker and Zanatta. I’ve almost got a full squad to choose from and plenty options. Only Ozturk is out.
“We’re going into this in good form after a great result in midweek, winning 3-0 against a good Ross County team. We’re looking forward to it and it’s going to be a great game to play in. We have three good forwards at the moment. Gavin Reilly has done really well this season, Juanma’s been scoring goals, and now Abiola Dauda has come in and looked good. I’ve got three guys vying for a place and I’ve no issues with playing any of them.”
Equally, he has no concern about playing a teenager in central defence tomorrow. Jordan McGhee and John Souttar both delivered commanding displays against Ross County and one will be asked to deputise for Ozturk against Hibs.
“They’re both teenagers and they were playing against David Goodwillie, a Scottish internationalist, and Liam Boyce, a Northern Ireland internationalist last week,” said Neilson. “I thought they played really well and made sure those two strikers didn’t cause us any problems. Souttar and McGhee both passed the ball really well when they had it and that’s a big part of their game.
“We had a really young bench last week as well. Dauda was there but then we had Gavin Reilly, who is still a young kid, really. Then it was Dario Zanatta, Angus Beith, Liam Smith and Robbie Buchanan. These are all young teenagers who have come through our academy.
“Two of them came on and did really well. Zanatta set up the third goal with some great skill from a wide area. Liam Smith then came on for the last ten or 15 minutes and defended really well. We’ve got a really good batch of kids in the first team just now but we have another really good batch coming through in the next six months to a year.
“You need experience for a game like tomorrow, but it’s also great to know that we have these young boys pushing through.”