Things, or so we were told, were going to be different this time. No longer would Hearts find Hibs a soft touch, a side easily bullied and pushed aside in the manner they had been in previous Edinburgh derbies.
Since the Capital outfits had last met at the beginning of January there had been a slow but discernable improvement at Easter Road, Pat Fenlon’s team, while far from perfect, at least showing signs of having a bit more about them, a resolve to make life tougher for the opposition.
And, to be fair to Fenlon and his players, the indications of late had been promising, a four-point advantage over the SPL’s basement club Dunfermline in the battle to avoid the drop and a William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden to look forward to.
However, when it comes to derbies, there’s no doubt Hibs remain very much second best, unable to break Hearts’ stranglehold on the fixture which now stretches to ten matches unbeaten – seven of them victories – and reaches back almost three years. Despite all the rhetoric as to how that was all going to change, the story remained very much the same, Hearts dominant and never looking as if they were going to relinquish their record of recent years.
“We just didn’t show up first half and were lucky only to be 1-0 down,” admitted striker Roy O’Donovan as he reflected on yet another hugely disappointing afternoon in Gorgie, defeat made all the more dispiriting with the realisation Hibs had also passed up the chance to extend that gap over Dunfermline.
As Hibs indulged in that old habit of making a slow start, they had Graham Stack to thank for keeping them on level terms, the goalkeeper thrusting out an instinctive, and strong, hand to push away Andy Webster’s powerful header before David Wotherspoon and Leigh Griffiths combined to allow the overlapping Pa Kujabi to fire a low ball across the face of the Hearts goal, only to find none of his team-mates possessed the pace to keep up with him.
As so often happens on these occasions, a near miss at one end results in a goal at the other, Ian Black delivering a superb crossfield ball over the head of substitute Matt Doherty – he had replaced George Francomb who’d required “a fair few stitches” in a nasty head wound sustained in a clash with Rudi Skacel – to find man-of-the-moment Craig Beattie. The former Celtic striker’s first touch was just as delightful, giving him the time to prod the ball beyond Stack.
“It was our throw-in outside their box,” complained Fenlon, “The sort of thing we set up in training but the players do not carry it out and we concede a goal which makes it worse.”
Fenlon, though, could consider Hibs’ sloppy start had invited such punishment, Jorge Claros and Lewis Stevenson unable to get near Black in the middle of the park, allowing the Jambos midfielder to pull all the strings while Webster and Darren Barr ensured there was no return for Griffiths and O’Donovan.
Mind you, the Hibs strikers had little to work on, the Leith side unable to exert any meaningful pressure on their opponents and wasteful when it came to the rare opportunities they did have to deliver from around the Hearts penalty area.
It was a trait which was to continue into the second half. Griffiths and Garry O’Connor, introduced as was Eoin Doyle later on as Hibs sought an equaliser, didn’t make the most of free-kicks from decent range, the on-loan Wolves hitman blasting one high over and his team-mate slamming another into the defensive wall.
Having given Hearts the lead, Beattie ensured they kept it as he hooked away a header from Doherty from beyond the back post, and the boot of Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald was enough to block O’Donovan’s downward header. It was, as O’Donovan admitted, a moment which might, just might, have changed the course of the match. He said: “Fair play to the goalkeeper, he has made a good save but we did not get the breaks that are needed to get back in to the game.”
Hearts, however, appeared to sense that a side which had managed just two goals in five years at Tynecastle was struggling to add even one more to that less than impressive tally, robust at the back as they repelled everything that came their way while looking more dangerous by the minute on the break as their opponents were committed to putting greater emphasis on claiming an equaliser.
It was never a “clasico” as Honduran internationalist Claros might have wished, the sort of Capital derby to which more long-term observers of this fixture have become accustomed to down through the years although, as always, the final scoreline will undoubtedly colour the opinion of the fare on offer depending on which side of the divide you stand.
Beattie’s goal would have been enough to win it, but Suso Santana doubled the home fans’ joy as, with only seconds of the four minutes added at the end of the match remaining, he collected the ball on the halfway line.
The winger might have been tempted to head for the corner to run down the clock but, instead, skipped past a couple of challenges, the second a tired attempt at stopping him by Claros, before directing a precise shot past Stack and low into the far corner of the net.
It was no more than Hearts deserved, the wages issue which has raised it’s head again once more forgotten – at least for the duration of this match – with a win which more or less clinches the Tynecastle side’s place in the top six. Hibs, of course, now face that fight with the Pars to avoid the drop, having suffered a whitewash in this season’s derbies, Hearts having taken all nine points – and with some ease – from the three games. What will probably make it all the more galling for Fenlon and his players is that Paulo Sergio’s side are no world beaters.
But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of derby-day football, they’ve got what it takes. It’s something Hibs have to find as Fenlon conceded although, as he insisted, the immediate focus is SPL survival for his club and with it more Capital clashes next season.