Hearts arrived at Easter Road, top of the league and unbeaten in the first 12 matches of the 2005-2006 season, but the abrupt departure of manager George Burley a week earlier gave Hibernian every hope of shattering the run.
With Burley gone, John McGlynn slotted into the caretaker manager role for a derby at Easter Road that had everything, including reports of a blazing row between Hearts majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov and chief executive Phil Anderton in a room within Easter Road.
On the pitch, there was no reason to think Hearts, with their solid spine of Craig Gordon, Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley, would fall to pieces in the absence of Burley, and their supporters were heard singing the ill-fated words “we are unbeatable” as the Edinburgh derby atmosphere cranked up to its usual fever pitch in anticipation of kick-off.
In driving rain, the game began at a frantic pace, with referee John Underhill under pressure to stop tempers from boiling over with several combustible characters involved in a midfield battle, including Hartley, Rudi Skacel, Scott Brown and Michael Stewart.
Hibs were still hurting from their 4-0 drubbing at Tynecastle at the start of the season, and piled forward for an early strike, with Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor both coming close as they thrived on the service they were getting from man of the match Kevin Thomson and his fellow midfielders.
Hearts, too, had their chances in a derby that swung from end to end, Hartley – on a prolific run of goalscoring form – shooting tamely at Zibi Malkowski after Skacel had picked him out, and Samuel Camazzola trying his luck with a long-range effort.
The complexion of the game altered dramatically when Edgaras Jankauskas was red-carded when he reacted angrily to a challenge by Brown.
Hibs smelled blood and went for the jugular, laying siege to the Hearts goal as their opponents began to wilt.
Sproule, who was sent into the fray by Tony Mowbray within minutes of the dismissal, added: “Hearts were full of confidence that day, but we were determined to bring their unbeaten run to an end and that maybe just gave us the edge. The margin in derbies is sometimes so thin that it comes down to who wants it more on the day and I think it was a case of that in this game.”
Hibs had to be patient though and they never found a way past Hearts until the 78th minute. Sproule was instrumental, wriggling his way to the bye-line and providing a perfect cutback for Guillaume Beuzelin to bundle the ball into the net via a post.
O’Connor doubled the advantage when he had the time and space to chest down a chipped free kick by David Murphy and crash a shot past Gordon to wrap up the points for Hibs.
Hearts stayed top of the league despite this loss, which McGlynn described as “a kick in the teeth, a blip”, but events on and off the pitch had lasting effects on their season, which eventually yielded the Scottish Cup, but a lot of turmoil too.
Hibs: Malkowski, Caldwell, Murphy, Hogg, Rudge, Brown, Beuzelin, Stewart, Thomson, O’Connor, Riordan.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Fyssas, Pressley, Hartley, Webster, Camazzola, Brellier, Jankauskas, Pospisil, Skacel.