Jim Jefferies’ team clinched their place in the UEFA Cup with a final-day win over the Hibees.
The relief at the end of a match which also yielded their first derby victory since 1997 was an indicator of the anxiety which had seeped into the consciousness of supporters, who had assumed three weeks earlier that a place in the UEFA Cup was a formality.
The seven-point lead they held over their only challengers, Motherwell, with three matches to play hinted at an almost nonchalant qualification before lapses against Dundee United and Rangers and the victories for the Fir Park side which brought Hearts into this showdown with Hibs under serious threat of embarrassment.
Well, they did it the hard way, but Jim Jefferies could look back on a job well done. Hearts qualified for Europe with the club in the healthiest position it had been in for some time.
At the start of the campaign at Tynecastle, the aim was for the Gorgie club to win “their” league. That is, while Celtic and Rangers battled it out for the championship, the Capital club wanted to be the best of the rest.
Prior to this match, Don Goodman, of third-place rivals Motherwell, had attempted to psyche out the Gorgie squad by accusing them of being “bottlers”.
Goodman’s actions backfired badly. Jefferies later admitted his team talk was one of the shortest he has had to give in five years at Tynecastle. And, on the park, his players showed that they were no chokers.
Passion and commitment were called for in this derby and it arrived in spades from both sets of players in a first half that probably won’t be remembered for the football played.
Martin McIntosh and Grant Brebner picked up early bookings as the challenges went flying in, while Nick Colgan produced a superb stop to deny Juanjo a 20th-minute goal when the Spaniard looked to turn in a Gordan Petric header.
His inclusion may have raised eyebrows before the game, this being only his second start of the season, but in the 39th minute it turned out to be one of Jefferies’ more inspired decisions.
Picking up the ball on the right-hand touchline, Juanjo drifted inside looking to play a pass into the area. Nobody moved, and his options were limited. At one stage he actually threw his hands up into the air to urge his colleagues to move but, with Hibs defenders starting to crowd him out, he decided to cut inside.
Having done that, though, there was only one thing on his mind and Colgan was helpless as he then curled his shot into the Irishman’s bottom left-hand corner.
Their prospects of holding their advantage to the end were not damaged by the ordering-off of the Hibs defender, McIntosh, for a challenge on Colin Cameron which brought his second yellow card.
The mood somewhat darkened however as Hibs equalised after the interval through Mixu Paatelainen, the future Hibs boss scrambling home after Kenny Miller’s header had come back off Antti Niemi’s post.
If the Hearts players were going to bottle it, then the time had arrived. Instead, they took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Hearts craved something special and, from a free-kick, the impressive Lee Makel delivered.
Hibs boss Alex McLeish later described the set-piece as “undefendable”, Makel’s cross whipping straight onto the head of Gary McSwegan, who glanced the ball past Colgan from the six-yard line.
McIntosh then saw red for his second bookable offence when he brought down Colin Cameron and, with the clock ticking, Hearts were content to play out time, and finally start thinking about getting the passports out.
Hearts: Niemi; Flogel, Pressley, Petric, Naysmith; Makel, Severin, Cameron; Juanjo, McSwegan, Jackson.
Hibs: Colgan; Collins, Hughes, McIntosh, Lovering; McManus, Brebner, Murray, McGinlay; Paatelainen, Miller.