For years to come, yesterday’s dramatic draw between Hibs and Hearts will be remembered as “the Alim Ozturk derby”.
In the same way that Wayne Foster and Phil Stamp remain renowned among Hearts supporters for Easter Road heroics of previous decades, the big Turkish centre-back, with one audacious swing of his right boot, etched his name into Jambo folklore.
No-one present – perplexed Hibs fans included – will forget in a hurry the day they witnessed one of the most sensational goals in Hearts’ history. Taken on its visual impact alone, Ozturk’s stunning, dipping 40-yard piledriver, which crashed in off the underside of the bar, was incredible enough. The details behind it merely made it even more remarkable.
Table-topping Hearts were down to ten men, out of sorts, and on the brink of having a proud, ten-game unbeaten start to their Championship campaign ended at the home of their biggest rivals. However, Ozturk was in no mood to let the 3856 Hearts fans present suffer that fate.
Two minutes into stoppage time, with his team running out of ideas, the defender, previously with only two career goals to his name, marched unchecked into Hibs territory, sized up the situation, and, as his team-mates screamed at him not to shoot, unleashed the fury. In real time, his ambitious rasper looked like it was sailing just over the bar, only to dip at just the right moment to bounce down into Mark Oxley’s net and spark pandemonium among the away support behind that goal. Some felt the goalkeeper, a few yards off his line, should have saved it, but Hibs manager Alan Stubbs rightly dismissed such a notion as nonsense.
It was truly stunning stuff, leaving Hibs shellshocked and Hearts, as Stubbs remarked, celebrating as if they’d already won the league. They may have finished the weekend with their advantage over Rangers at the top of the Championship trimmed from nine points to seven, but, the way yesterday’s game panned out, Hearts were thrilled to escape with their unbeaten record intact. Given the exhilarating nature of Ozturk’s stoppage-time intervention, Hearts’ challenge will surely have gained fresh impetus. As Neilson mused, it is moments like these which contribute to title wins.
A purposeful Hibs side, who continue to gel nicely under Stubbs, made it hard for Hearts to find any sustained rhythm. As has been the case for much of the season, the central midfield duo of Morgaro Gomis and Buaben were the visitors’ two best performers, but, up against an impressive triumvirate of Scott Robertson, Scott Allan and Dylan McGeouch, the Hearts pair were unable to impose themselves as much as they had in previous games.
The fact that Hearts’ front four struggled to escape the shackles of an organised and focused Hibs defence made for a largely frustrating afternoon for the hitherto rampant league leaders. “The back four and midfield two did really well for us,” said Neilson. “But our creative players couldn’t quite get into the game. They worked hard and gave everything, but it was difficult because the game was 100 miles an hour.
“The only possession we really had was across the back, into the midfield and back out the other side. We never really penetrated them at all. We’re going to have games like that, when it doesn’t happen for us, but it’s about working hard and making sure we get something out of it.”
Hearts, without being outclassed, played second fiddle for much of the first half. In an uneventful opening quarter of the match, both teams endeavoured to pass but found it difficult to make any significant headway. The only half-chance in that period fell to Hearts when Buaben powered into the box and had an effort charged down by Paul Hanlon at the end of a move which he had started himself.
Midway through the first half, though, the hosts started to get on top. Hearts were forced into some frantic defending to crowd out Dominique Malonga when Allan cut the ball back to him on the edge of the six-yard box. Seconds later, goalkeeper Neil Alexander punched out a powerful shot by Danny Handling who had been teed up by another Allan cutback.
Hearts should have fallen behind in the 25th minute when captain Danny Wilson, still labouring under the effects of a hamstring problem, was caught dithering as he waited for Alexander to come and clear a long ball into Hearts’ half. Jason Cummings nipped in and knocked the ball into the path of Malonga, who dinked a tame effort wide from a promising position on the edge of the box.
Hearts almost profited from a defensive lapse ten minutes later. Callum Paterson lumped a long ball forward from right-back, which was totally misjudged by Paul Hanlon, allowing Soufian El Hassnaoui to burst clean through on goal. The Moroccan, however, was unable to outfox Oxley, who stood up well to make a fine save. It was to prove a costly miss as Hibs broke through a minute before the interval.
Allan’s corner was headed down into the danger area by Liam Fontaine, Cummings pounced and shot towards the corner, and after Billy King scrambled it off the line, Malonga was on hand to slot in the rebound. Hearts could have few complaints about going in behind at the break.
The hosts almost scored again three minutes after the break but Malonga glanced a header wide from an Allan cross. Not much was happening for Hearts and El Hassnaoui, who was toiling to make an impact, was replaced by Jamie Walker in the 55th minute. Wilson’s injury forced him off a few minutes later, teenager Jordan McGhee taking over at centre-back.
Walker’s arrival helped Hearts ease their way back into the match. Without ever hitting their scintillating form of previous matches this season, the Tynecastle side at least began to enjoy some sustained possession in the Hibs half. In terms of carving out openings, however, they were generally restricted to half-chances – with King miskicking the best of them – while the home team remained a live threat on the break.
Indeed, it was from a Hibs breakaway, after a Hearts attack had broken down, that the visitors were reduced to ten men with 11 minutes left. As Malonga started to surge away from his own penalty box, Paterson, who could just as easily have halted the Hibs forward with a shirt-tug, made a cynical lunge from behind which felled the big Congolese. Referee Bobby Madden had little option but to reach for his red card.
Neilson had no complaints with a decision which looked like it might kill off his side’s hopes once and for all. “That was one of the best refereeing performances we’ve had this season – I was really impressed with Bobby,” said Hearts’ head coach. “The way he refereed the game, if he thinks it was a red card, then it probably was.”
Hearts regrouped, with McGhee shunted out to fill Paterson’s void at right-back and Buaben dropping back to centre-half. Ironically, a man down, they began to play with renewed purpose.
With teenage striker Robbie Buchanan sent on for his league debut in the last few minutes, they probed and probed, but it looked like Hibs were going to hold out.
Then all of a sudden Ozturk’s bullet strike turned Jambo deflation into unbridled elation.