Leith last Wednesday at 7.44pm was no place for the faint-hearted. The match was about to kick-off but, really, what kind of travesty was it going to be? The first attempt at settling the Scottish Cup-tie had, by common consent, been one of the worst games ever contested by the teams. On a cold night, Storm Doris was looming...
Hunching up their collars, the weak-willed must have felt that Uefa had done Scotland a favour by refusing to allow live telly coverage. There was no need to inflict the replay on anyone else. Let’s just get it over with and then we can shuffle back to our gloomy caves.
The Scottish football fan had more or less been declared a non-person by the governing body and his local skirmish had been condemned as sub-prime. Hibs vs Hearts was meaningless – this was the gist of the decree. What mattered was the Champions League and we were all supposed to fall into line at the first parp of the bombastic anthem.
What happened? Well, the faint-hearted were very quickly reminded of the raw power, fierce thrills and careering unpredictability of cup football and in particular a cup derby. Really, though, I don’t think any of the 20,205 who turned up needed reminding; they knew this and that’s why they came.
Obviously one team recorded a famous win while the other side notched a notorious defeat. Hearts fans are probably not feeling terribly magnanimous right now, but I’d like to think they might eventually view the game as a victory for Scottish football against Uefa snobbery and supremacy. I’d like to see all our big cup ties played on Champions League nights in defiance of that tournament, all our important league matches, too. Uefa can keep their outrageous ban, meaning that if you want to see our fayre you have to roll up at the turnstiles. Games would reclaim their status as unique one-offs, the best of them archived as special events, to be filed away in the memory-banks where, as we know, all sorts of embroidery and embellishment ensues. But it’s time to wake up. This is never going to happen.
Come to think of it, though, Wednesday produced three victories: the one achieved by Hibs and the blow struck by Scottish football, but also the blow struck by the derby. For you could argue that Hearts didn’t just lose to their old Edinburgh rivals, they were also beaten by the fixture.
In the build-up, Ian Cathro and his new signings talked in often cold, clinical and confident terms about what they were going to do. Some Hearts fans I know thought they were being too complacent, almost too boastful. Giving Cathro and the players the benefit of the doubt here, I’d say that the manager was trying too hard to present a sophisticated response to the challenge ahead, while his recruits were simply ignorant.
Cathro, pictured, when he speaks seems to be striving for new ways of talking about football and that’s to be admired. At the end of the day, to be fair, the game’s hoary stock-standard responses leave me feeling sick as a parrot. “Avoid clichés like the plague,” my old editor was fond of saying. Cathro, as we know, uses a laptop. It’s almost become another cliché to sneer at him for this. But I seriously doubt there’s software which can crack the vagaries of a derby and throw clear light across its lurking dangers.
Cathro, reacting to the opening games of his tenure, had winced at the sometimes stramashful elements of the Scottish game. Guess what? Derbies can be entirely like that. After the biff-bang of Tynecastle – not a classic but I was engrossed as I always am by the capital contest – he seemed to hold out the hope that his team, second-best that day, would be better equipped for the rematch because they now knew exactly the way Hibs played.
Because Hibs only know one way to play? Maybe Neil Lennon lured Hearts into a false sense of superiority after the first game by asking Grant Holt to give the impression he’d arrived on that dreadful Tynie pitch having gone from pub to pub in Gorgie Road looking for a square-go. Then, for Easter Road, the big bruiser would become almost balletic to score his goal (rather less so in his celebratory “dab”).
The Hearts newcomers, most of them foreign, were asked before their first Edinburgh derby what they expected from it. Exactly what they’d experienced in derbies in Greece, France and elsewhere, they chorused. Then some of them, shellshocked by the physical nature of the game, predicted they’d win second time around because they were the better footballers. Rash words, again based on scant evidence and the daft presumption that the opposition manager, a streetwise derby combatant, wouldn’t have a strategy (not requiring a laptop) while Hearts fans with true knowledge would well remember how much football John McGinn and Jason Cummings brought to the previous season’s cup double-header and be wary.
Did Lennon’s strategy begin with his flamethrower blast after Hibs’ poor display in last weekend’s league game? I heard Hibbies express concern at this, fearing the tactic was outmoded. Hearts had been equally unimpressive in their match that day but Cathro chose not to criticise to anything like the same degree, at least not publicly. Old-school techniques – an unscientific bawling out – can still prove effective.
This Hibs team have been together longer – many of the players have their own songs – and it showed on the night. The Hibees also demonstrated more toughness than the Jambos to which their fans will have cried: “About time, too!” Some of the Hearts men wore gloves and didn’t seem to have the stomach for the contest, just like Hibs sides of old. They were faint-Hearted. This has appalled their fans who urgently want to see more Scots wearing the maroon.
Well, Hibs vs Hearts is a Scottish grudge match and one to cherish. Wednesday proved you can’t just saunter across from Athens and look dashing in the fixture. It’s special local colour and character can confound the foreigner. It can’t be downplayed or over-thought by new coaches or diminished by Uefa.
All hail the anti-globalisation Edinburgh derby!