Hibs skipper James McPake made a vow to the Easter Road support following the humiliation of last season’s Scottish Cup final – that never again would Hearts be allowed to trample all over their Capital rivals as they had done at Hampden.
Three derbies on from that fateful match in May, McPake and his team-mates have been true to their word, as Pat Fenlon’s side have yet to taste defeat in this season’s trilogy.
While that statistic on its own may be insufficient evidence to suggest there has been a power swing in their favour, Hibs are certainly an entirely different proposition to the team which lost on each of the four occasions they faced those in maroon last season. No longer can they be regarded as a soft touch. Rather than merely capitulate and take what’s coming to them, Fenlon’s players are more than ready to stand up for themselves, to go toe-to-toe and fight their corner.
They needed to at Tynecastle last night. John McGlynn’s side bossed the game in terms of possession and territory, in chances created and corners won and, yet, they were forced to settle for a point, the draw meaning they go into the winter break trailing Hibs by six points.
Naturally, McGlynn argued his side had done enough to win the match, describing the outcome as “two points dropped” as far as he was concerned. While he had some justification for his standpoint there would, undoubtedly, have been a grudging appreciation of the battling performance put in by those in a green and white shirt.
Gritty and determined rather than classy and assured conceded Fenlon, the Hibs boss admitting he’d happily have settled for a point before kick-off at a venue where the Easter Road outfit haven’t won since May 2009, even if his opponents had been weakened in the run-up with Ryan McGowan heading for China and Andy Webster ruled out with flu.
Just who was on the pitch, though, would probably have counted for little with this typical derby fare, high on effort and commitment, blood and thunder but way, way short of quality. Both sides were happy to have the ball as far away from their own danger area as possible, repeatedly launching it from one end to the other, with little thought given to even trying to pick out a team-mate.
When it did arrive at the feet of someone wearing the same colour of shirt it appeared more through accident than design, both teams hoping a slip at the other end might offer an opening, rather than trying to create a chance by bringing it down and attempting to knock even three or four passes together.
It almost worked for Hearts, McPake launching himself at Darren Barr’s long ball forward as he and Scott Robinson tried to get on the end of it. He missed it, leaving Andy Driver to pull a low shot across goal and out when he should have at least tested Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams. Hearts believed they should have had a penalty for McPake’s challenge, recalling how referee Willie Collum, when faced with a similar situation in the recent Tayside derby, awarded a spot-kick, having initially applied the advantage rule only to see it scorned.
Hearts, though, should have gone ahead three minutes into the second half, Williams spilling Mehdi Taouil’s low shot but having the presence of mind to throw a leg at the ball as Dylan McGowan closed in, rapping it off the shins of a surprised Ryan Stevenson – who could well have been sent off in the first period for a two-footed lunge at McPake which didn’t even draw a booking from Collum – and breathing a good deal easier as it spun out of play.
Incredibly, though, Hibs could well have been in front minutes later, Paul Cairney sweeping a superb crossfield ball for the unmarked Eoin Doyle who, with only Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald to beat, fired high over the bar.
Fenlon said: “Eoin was disappointed. Perhaps he needed to be a little bit calmer when he got into that position, but he’d put in a tremendous shift against Celtic at the weekend and I thought he looked a bit leggy and maybe the sharpness was not there. It was the same for Paul on the other side. They’d worked really hard on Saturday and it took its toll on a heavy pitch.”
Although he was delighted with the battling qualities shown by his side, Fenlon, right, would have been disappointed at seeing them being unable to retain the ball for any length of time, hurried clearances resulting in the ball coming straight back at them with the midfield, which became increasingly detached from the lone frontrunner Leigh Griffiths, finding themselves sitting more and more in front of their back four.
Substitute Jason Holt had a glorious opportunity to claim all three points eight minutes from time, striding away from Tim Clancy and Williams, but just as the youngster probably saw his name in lights, there was Ryan McGivern getting in the way.
The Northern Ireland internationalist said: “I saw Holt had cut in and would have a free shot at goal, so rather than go to him I took a chance on getting into the right position to clear it and thankfully that’s how it worked out.”
There was one further scare for Hibs when John Sutton rattled a header from Jamie Walker’s corner off the bar, although the Hearts fans had a sharp intake of breath just before then, MacDonald getting a hand to Doyle’s low shot with McGowan sliding in to complete the clearance before Griffiths could cash in.
Hibs undoubtedly were the happier of the two sides, the draw taking Fenlon’s side to within a point of the total they amassed during the whole of last season, a measure, the Easter Road manager insisted, of the progress the club have made over recent months.
He said: “We would have been well beaten last year on that performance, but we’d had that tough game on Saturday and it took its toll on some of them. They still kept going, working tremendously hard to make sure we got something out of the game.”
Like a good number of his teammates, McGivern wasn’t a Hibs player in May, but the on-loan Manchester City star believes that not only have Fenlon’s team improved remarkably, but there’s more to come from them when they return after the winter break.
He said: “The Hearts fans like to keep bringing up the 5-1 game, but going on present form, that’s three games unbeaten against them, so we are happy enough with that.
“I don’t think we have been outmuscled by them in the games I have involved in. Everyone in the squad has stood up to be counted and we are still unbeaten [against them]. It has been a total transformation from last season and we have to be quite happy where were are sitting at the minute.
“Everyone knows that there is a lot more to come from us. We are in a good position and hopefully we can go away, rest up and by the time we come back hopefully we can kick on and push up the table.”