James McDonaugh lauded Hibs’ high-flying Under-20s after they fought back to beat ten-man Hearts in blizzard conditions at Livingston last night.
Robbie Neilson’s young Jambos had the better of the first half and led at the break through a fine strike by Billy King, but, after relentless snow turned the Almondvale pitch white and briefly threatened an abandonment, the “wee derby” swung in Hibs’ favour in the closing half hour.
Danny Handling got the Easter Road side level on the hour-mark before Hearts left-back Elliot Ford was sent off for a rash tackle on Jason Cummings. Further goals from Handling and Euan Smith, the best player on the field, put Hibs in command before Kevin McHattie pulled one back.
The hosts then survived a spirited late onslaught from the Jambos to stay on the coat-tails of the Old Firm at the top of the SPFL Under-20 league, much to the delight of McDonaugh, Hibs’ head of academy coaching.
“Winning the derby against Hearts is about as good as it gets, so we’re delighted,” he said, as the dance music blared out of a jubilant Hibs dressing-room. “Credit to Hearts, they edged the first half and probably deserved to be one up. We had to have a wee go at the boys at half time because very few had played well, but in the second half I thought we controlled the game.
“I thought we were on top at the time of the sending off and that just cemented our position in the game. We had all the territory and all the shots at goal after the break. At 3-1 up, we had chances to make it four or five, but then they made it tight at the end. The conditions were poor, but both sets of players deserve credit for trying to play football in it.”
Hibs fielded a relatively experienced side, with youngsters Cummings, Handling and Alex Harris, who have had no shortage of first-team exposure lately, joined in the side by on-loan Arsenal defender Daniel Boateng and senior duo Paul Heffernan and Scott Robertson, who were included to top up their match fitness. The most experienced players in the Hearts line-up were Callum Paterson, 19, and McHattie, 20, who were included as they are suspended for the first team’s trip to Inverness this weekend.
Both first-team managers, Terry Butcher and Gary Locke, braved the pre-match snowfall to attend along with several of the youngsters’ team-mates, including Hibs defenders Paul Hanlon and Jordon Forster and Hearts captain Danny Wilson, while ex-Jambos kid Adam King was also there to support his old pals.
And the Swansea new boy, who was captaining this Hearts side just a few weeks ago, was up celebrating after nine minutes when his older brother Billy gave the Jambos the lead as he drilled home a superb low strike from just inside the box after Rhys Craigie had helped a Callum Tapping pass into his path. King almost doubled his tally in the 19th minute when he was released by Paterson and burst into the Hibs penalty area, but his angled shot flew just beyond the far post.
At the other end, Hearts goalkeeper Mark Ridgers had to act smartly to tip a 29th-minute header from Hibs centre-back Tom Gardiner over the top.
The snow, which had relented for the first half hour of the game, soon started to fall again and by half time, there was serious doubt about whether the match could be completed. Gordon McDougall, chairman of host club Livingston, could be seen on the pitch at half-time trying to help clear the lines of snow.
Hibs had reason aplenty to be grateful for the match getting the all-clear to resume. Having started the second half with renewed purpose, they drew level on the hour mark when Cummings’ low delivery was knocked in from close range by Handling.
The game started to ebb away from Hearts in 64 minutes when Ford was sent off for a reckless tackle on Cummings, which prompted an angry reaction from the Hibs players. The 17-year-old was disconsolate as he made his way up the tunnel.
Hibs made their extra man count in 68 minutes when Handling was on hand to score from close range after Robertson delivered a superb ball into the danger area from the right. In setting up the goal, Robertson aggravated a knee injury, which he had sustained moments earlier, and was replaced by Scott Martin.
Hibs secured their third goal and it was fitting that the tall and rangy Smith,outstanding in central midfield, scored what proved to be the winner as he lashed home a corner from the impressive Baptie on 73 minutes.
That should have been game over, but McHattie pulled one back with three minutes left when he curled home a magnificent free-kick from 22 yards out.
Hearts piled on the pressure in search of an equaliser and they almost got it when McHattie smacked another effort off the post in stoppage time. However, Hibs, with new boy Boateng making a good first impression at centre-half, held firm.
“I thought Daniel did fine,” added McDonaugh. “It’ll have been a bit of a culture shock for him coming in and playing his first game in a derby, but he was good on the ball and he’s a good size; I’m sure he’ll add to the first team.”
Hearts (4-4-1-1): Ridgers; L Smith,Gordon McHattie, Ford; Paterson,Tapping, Beith, B King; Craigie (KWilson 70); Beith. Subs not used: Hamilton, Simpson, Daniel.
Hibs (4-4-1-1): Grant; Black, Boateng, Gardiner, Baptie; Harris, Smith, Robertson (Martin 70), Cummings; Handling; Heffernan. Subs not used: Wilson, Martyniuk, McCaffrey, Beaton.