Hearts may be favourites for derby but Stevenson recalls formbook doesn’t always go to script, finds David Hardie
LEWIS STEVENSON simply shrugs his shoulders at the suggestion arch-rivals Hearts go into the second Edinburgh derby of the season as firm favourites.
A quick glance at today’s SPL table only begins to tell you why the Tynecastle side do so for the 14-point gap which separates Paulo Sergio’s players from their Capital rivals doesn’t quite reveal the whole story.
Beset by financial problems, the Gorgie outfit have somehow retained their focus on the pitch, worries over unpaid wages pushed aside as Hearts have staged something of a mini-revival in recent weeks with three matches unbeaten and without a goal conceded.
Hibs, on the other hand, have struggled all season, former boss Colin Calderwood sacked and his replacement Pat Fenlon finding life tough.
The point gained against Inverness Caledonian Thistle was his first as Easter Road boss, ending a run of four successive defeats, but leaving the Irishman’s team without a win in their last eight games and hovering just above the SPL basement place.
It’s a scenario which points to the Jambos continuing to enjoy a stranglehold on the Capital bragging rights, a claim they have held over a run of eight derbies without defeat; three draws being the best Hibs have managed in that period.
Stevenson, though, points to Hibs’ last victory in this particular schedule as proof aplenty that no-one should ever approach a derby regarding the outcome as a foregone conclusion.
Although the first to concede it has been too long since that day – May 7, 2009, to be precise – the recollection of how Mixu Paatelainen’s side defied the odds still brings a smile to the little midfielder’s face.
Although Hibs had won the previous derby only a few weeks earlier courtesy of a Steven Fletcher strike, Paatelainen took his side across the city beset by suspensions and injuries which robbed him off the services of six first-team players.
Rob Jones, Sol Bamba and Colin Nish were all completing two-match bans; Chris Hogg had failed in an appeal against a red card having been sent off against Dundee United a few days earlier; while goalkeeper Grzegorz Szamotulski and Hungarian midfielder Denes Rosa were injured. Paatelainen was forced to field Ian Murray and Steven Thicot as a makeshift partnership in central defence while the lack of options available to the big Finn were highlighted by the sight of cousins Blair Tolmie and Jordan Cropley on the bench – neither of whom had played a minute of first team action.
“How many?” had been the question on the lips of most Hearts fans, some even contemplating revenge for that 7-0 mauling on New Year’s Day, 1973. And, it has to be said, more than a few Hibs supporters were simply hoping the scoreline could be kept respectable.
Both, however, were confounded as Hearts failed to find a way past Yves Ma-Kalambay in the Hibs goal, paving the way for Derek Riordan to claim the game’s only goal from the penalty spot after he’d been knocked over by Christos Karipidis, an action which earned the Tynecastle player a red card. Today Stevenson, along with Murray and Paul Hanlon as the only Hibs survivors from that day, recalled: “Everyone was writing us off because we had so many players out.
“To be honest, we were a bit nervous beforehand but we just decided we had nothing to lose. It seems so long ago now. I was really just a wee boy back then, now I feel I have matured a lot.
“I’ve played in a few derbies and know what to expect. I don’t think it is going to be a classic, but we know what we have to do. It’s been a while since we won a derby – a victory is a bit overdue.”
Although he and his team-mates haven’t had their troubles to seek so far this season, Stevenson admitted to a grudging respect for the way in which Sergio’s players, with their December wage packets a fortnight overdue following similar problems in recent months, have reacted on the pitch.
He said: “They’ve had problems, but they’ve been doing well when I think a lot of people were expecting them to crumble. But they do have a massive squad, much bigger than ours and they are on big wages.
“They are a good team and for all they have gone through they have kept focused and you can’t argue with the results they have been getting.” Having said that, however, Stevenson insisted Fenlon’s players won’t be going into Monday’s lunchtime kick-off with any sense of an inferiority complex no matter what the statistics might suggest.
And, he claimed, the point earned against Caley, while less than everyone would have wanted, had brought something of a sense of relief to everyone at Easter Road although that was tempered by the fact Hibs had again taken the lead in a match only to prove incapable of holding on to it.
He said: “Caley have been playing well, they’d been unlucky against Rangers and they tend to do well away from home so we knew it was going to be hard. It was a bit of a relief to get the first point for the manager, but we’d far rather it had come earlier for him. A point was obviously better than a defeat, but we really do need to start winning our home games. We got off to a terrific start with a great goal from Garry O’Connor, but again we didn’t capitalise on going ahead.”
Stevenson admitted when Caley winger Johnny Hayes was allowed to cut through the Hibs defence, capping a scintillating 60-yard run with a precisely-placed shot to equalise, he did fear the worst. He said: “You try not to, but the thought of ‘here we go again’ is at the back of your mind. We’ve been ahead in a few games only to lose them so at least this time we got a draw which is a bit better.
“But we have to be unhappy at the way their guy was allowed to run so far and to get his shot away without being put under any pressure or contact.”
Hibs withstood an early second half flurry from Caley, but, Stevenson claimed, they could take encouragement from the fact they finished the match strongly, forcing a series of late corners from which Sean O’Hanlon was unlucky to see a header strike Richie Foran on the line.
And if it isn’t particularly evident to onlookers, Stevenson insisted progress is being made under Fenlon. He said: “We still believe we have good enough a squad and that we are not too far away. We know there are things we can improve on, but they are not hard things such as keeping the ball a bit better. But it’s a derby and everyone will be desperate to give it their all.
“Perhaps the fact so many people see us as the underdogs can work in our favour. Seeing Garry score for the first time in a while was great, everyone knows that when a striker ends a barren run they often find a few more. His free-kick against Caley was one Derek Riordan would have approved of and with Garry about you know that if we can create a few more chances than we have been then he is more than capable of scoring.
“With the games coming thick and fast recently the derby hasn’t been mentioned, but now our entire focus is on it. We know a win could help turn our season around.”