Sixteen years ago this month, confidence-shorn Hibs welcomed Hearts to Easter Road knowing that nothing less than a victory would do to give themselves a realistic chance of staying in the top flight.
Alex McLeish’s side went into that derby seven points adrift of Dunfermline at the foot of the Premier Division, but they temporarily banished the negativity engulfing the club as Kevin Harper’s late strike secured a 2-1 victory which killed off the Jambos’ faint title dream.
Despite giving the Easter Road side a glimmer of hope of staying up, that April 1998 triumph ultimately proved fruitless as they had their relegation confirmed a few weeks later.
It was a grim time for Harper, then just 22, and his colleagues and he doesn’t want the current Hibs team to suffer the same fate in the weeks ahead.
The pressure has been cranked up on Terry Butcher’s squad as a result of a run of just one win in 14 league games which has left them just three points above the relegation play-off spot.
Although Hibs are in the worst form of the five teams battling to avoid second-bottom place, Harper believes his old club have to take heart from the fact that, unlike in 1998, everything remains very much in their own hands ahead of Sunday’s high-stakes visit from Hearts.
“That game in 1998 was a must-win game for us, but unfortunately we weren’t in as good a position as the current Hibs team are in just now,” the 38-year-old former Easter Road forward told the Evening News.
“Even though we beat Hearts that day, we still needed to win more games and hope other results went our way, and they didn’t.
“The Hibs team just now have got a chance to get three points which will as good as keep them in the Premiership, while also putting one over their big rivals. That’s a good situation to be in.
“Even though things are not going well, everything is still in their own hands. Back in ’98, we knew that, even if we won, we still had a good chance of getting relegated. It was a difficult situation.”
Harper has grown increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of his old club as they have nosedived ominously from top-six contention towards the relegation play-off spot since the turn of the year. However, he still believes that, if they don’t let the pressure of Sunday’s derby inhibit them, they can all but eliminate the threat of relegation this weekend.
“There’ll be big pressure on the Hibs players on Sunday because Hearts are coming to Easter Road looking to take them down with them, but players should be thriving on pressure,” he explained.
“It’s part of being a professional footballer. Everybody has pressure, but it’s how you deal with it and keep a clear head.
“You just need to relax and go out there and play. They’re playing against Hearts – all these players have got the chance to score a winning goal and make themselves a hero.
“I’d love to be involved in a game like Sunday’s. As a footballer, it’s high-intensity games like this, where the pressure’s on, that you want to play in.
“Games like this tell you a lot about yourself as a player, whether you can handle it or not. Your own fans right behind you, the other fans baying for your blood – that’s what it’s all about.
“The last thing Hibs need is for the fans to turn against them, but I think the fans will get right behind them on Sunday. They’ll certainly realise how big a game it is for the club.
“The players have to realise that as well. It was difficult enough going down in 1998, but at least Hibs came straight back up that season. There’s no certainty that would happen next season because the Championship is going to be a really hard league next season.
“That’s the big worry. Hopefully they can just get a result on Sunday because I think that would be enough for Hibs to stay up. All the teams round about them will beat each other and I don’t think the likes of Ross County are capable of going on a proper run.”
If Hibs can’t rouse themselves for the visit of Hearts, however, Harper fears his old side will be heading for the play-offs. A lack of spark in Terry Butcher’s team is chief among the concerns of a man who broke into a Hibs team in 1993 which had no shortage of attacking talent.
“If they lose on Sunday, they’ll really be up against it,” said Harper. “They’re conceding goals and not scoring goals, which is a recipe for disaster, and I don’t think this team has anyone who is particularly creative.
“Most Hibs teams of the past have had some good creative players, like Russell Latapy, Michael O’Neill, myself, Derek Riordan or even Leigh Griffiths, but, at the moment, they don’t really have anyone who can do something out of nothing.
“I’m still surprised they’re down there, though. With Rangers out the league, I thought Hibs would really push on and go for Europe this season.
“When Terry Butcher came in I thought he’d turn things round, but it doesn’t seem to have happened so far for whatever reason. I’m not privy to what’s happening in the changing room. Is it the manager? Is it the players? I don’t know, but things just don’t seem to be working for Hibs right now.
“It’s almost gone backwards for Hibs since the new manager came in. They’re on a slippery slope and they need to win on Sunday because it’s dangerous times for Hibs.
“If they don’t realise now that they’re in a fight, then they never will. They’ve been a bit too soft at times, but it’s time for them to stand up and be strong.”
How Hibs could do with someone of Harper’s ilk on Sunday. In his 13 Edinburgh derbies, Hibs won five, with the Glaswegian scoring in three of those victories. Despite firing the goal that temporarily fended off the threat of relegation in April 1998, Harper recalls even more fondly a day in which his side showed bags of mental strength in the 1996 New Year’s Day derby at Easter Road.
“We’d just been beaten 7-0 against Rangers two days earlier and then we fell behind early against Hearts,” he recalled. “But we knew we had team spirit and we showed real character that day to beat Hearts.
“Michael O’Neill equalised and then I scored the winner. I did pretty well in the derbies, but that day was probably the highlight of my Hibs career.
“Hibs need to show that type of character on Sunday, but the big thing is that we also had good players who could change games back then, like Keith Wright, O’Neill, Pat McGinlay, Darren Jackson, Kevin McAllister and myself. I’m not sure the current team have players like that.”
He hopes Hibs’ attackers can prove him wrong as he’d hate to see the club that provided him with the platform to go on and play in the English Premier League with both Derby County and Portsmouth suffer another relegation.
“Hibs were great with me as a young kid,” said Harper who, having retired from the game five years ago, is now busy coaching kids at his own academy, Kevin Harper’s Football School of Excellence, in Glasgow. “I loved it there and I’ve got a lot of good memories, especially in the derbies
“We got relegated in my last season, but generally we were always up in the top half of the table. I was suspended the day we got relegated against Dundee United, but it was really hard because it was the first time I’d seen grown men and women cry. It felt really dark.”