WE’VE all heard the one about Hibs fans dressed as seats at Edinburgh derby matches. But, for ex-Hearts captain Steven Pressley, it is no laughing matter.
Any gaps among the home support on Monday will prompt a shudder from a man who thrived playing in the seething cauldron of a packed Easter Road. For the sake of both Hearts and Hibs players, Pressley says a full house is vital.
Recent derbies in Leith took place in front of patches of empty seats, an uncharacteristic aspect of Hibs-Hearts encounters. Easter Road holds 20,421 supporters since the new East Stand opened in August 2010 but the last two visits from Hearts drew crowds which were more than 2500 short of capacity. In April this year, 17,793 people watched a 2-2 draw while 17,767 witnessed Hearts’ 2-0 victory in November 2010.
On both occasions, the away end was full with home sections bearing all the gaps. Despite Pressley’s allegiances to Hearts – he played there for nine years and won the Scottish Cup in 2006 – he takes no enjoyment from Hibs fans staying home. He knows Hearts players relish capacity crowds at Easter Road just as much as their city counterparts.
“One of the features of derby games is the intensity of the occasion and the excitement generated by the fans. But in recent derbies at Easter Road I’ve seen a lot of empty seats,” said Pressley, now manager of First Division Falkirk. “That should be a little bit concerning. Edinburgh derbies aren’t just about the football on the park, a big part of it is about the intensity of the support. It’s a worrying aspect seeing the empty seats.
“As a Hearts player you want Easter Road full, absolutely no doubt. It was a terrific atmosphere when we played there. You come out to ‘Sunshine on Leith’ and it made for a brilliant atmosphere. Hibs have a stadium now that I believe can generate a terrific derby atmosphere. My one concern is the many empty seats I’ve seen in recent derbies. That isn’t what you associate with an Edinburgh derby.”
Fears are that the current financial climate and Hibs’ lowly league position could lead to similar empty spaces on Monday, when Sky Sports will beam the Edinburgh derby live around the country. Pressley also feels the monotony of clubs playing each other four times a season contributes heavily to tedium amongst the paying public. “There might be a number of factors for it,” he continued. “There has been a drop in most clubs’ gates because of everyone’s financial position. Also, I think the SPL as a product is a bit of a turn-off just now. If the Edinburgh derby was once a season at Easter Road, I’ve got no doubt the stadium would be full. Probably the regularity of it is a little bit of a turn-off.”
Pressley regards Easter Road as one of the finest footballing venues in Scotland and a place where he enjoyed many happy memories as a Hearts player. In particular, captaining the Tynecastle side there was an experience which ranked alongside anything he achieved in the game. “I loved the derbies, they were terrific games,” he said.
“I spent nine years at Hearts and obviously I have mixed memories of them. We had some brilliant games and some disappointing times down at Easter Road. But I really loved playing in them because of the intensity. The game means so much to the city. If you look at Hibs’ predicament right now, these are the types of games which can turn your season. They have such an influence on a club’s morale and the supporters’ morale. The responsibility of a captain in a game like this is so important. You need to maintain the focus and discipline of the players on the field because it’s very easy to get caught up in the intensity of the occasion. You can find yourself in trouble with mistimed challenges in the heat of the moment. As a captain, you need to be in your players’ ears and controlling their emotions. The motivational part in an Edinburgh derby is not required. You need to be a calming influence and the player who maintains the focus of the group. It’s a crucial aspect in games like these.”
His favourite Easter Road encounter, not surprisingly, featured a late winner from the man himself in a 2-1 Hearts victory back in March 2002. “It wasn’t often I scored, and certainly not in Edinburgh derbies, so that was a special moment for me. Probably my best moment in the derbies. The game was at Easter Road and I scored a penalty into the end where our supporters were a couple of minutes from the end. It was a truly memorable day for myself and the team and it stands out in my mind.”
Hearts sit fifth in the league and arrive in Leith on the back of three clean sheets, two wins and a draw in their last three matches. With Hibs just a point ahead of Dunfermline at the foot of the SPL table, it is no surprise to see bookmakers favouring the visitors. However, Pressley knows better than most the unpredictability of Edinburgh derbies.
“You don’t know what to expect in these games,” he said. “A prime example of that came in the season when we split the Old Firm (2005/06). We went to Easter Road on the back of ten wins in 12 games, the other two matches being draws. We were unbeaten and very much the form team at the time sitting top of the SPL. But Hibs turned us over that day 2-0. Like all derby games, these can be a little unpredictable.”