Fraser MULLEN could be forgiven if he approaches Tynecastle on Sunday bearing more than a degree of sympathy for Hearts, his former club having been plunged into administration and hit with a 15-point deduction which makes Gary Locke’s side favourites – in the eyes of most who don’t clad themselves in maroon – for relegation from the Scottish Premiership.
Mullen did, after all, spend seven years in Gorgie growing up and learning his trade among many of those he’ll face this weekend and, as such, they remain firm friends, at least off the pitch.
However, as much as he feels for those pals, the 19-year-old today insisted there won’t be any mixed emotions on his part, adamant his entire focus will be on helping extend Hibs’ current run of five derbies without defeat and in doing so to bring Pat Fenlon’s team their first three points of the season.
A win would do much to help ease the sense of foreboding which has engulfed Easter Road in the wake of Hibs’ ignominious Europa League exit, the 9-0 aggregate mauling by Malmo followed by the disappointment of defeat by Motherwell on the opening weekend of the domestic season.
Hearts, too, go into the match in search of their first points, the Jambos beaten by St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park as they kicked off their own season but, reasoned Mullen, Locke’s players can perform with a certain degree of freedom given they have, somehow, to claw back the deficit imposed on them by the authorities for their financial shortcomings.
That, though, is a problem for Hearts as far as Mullen is concerned. Having previously pointed out that it was Hearts who ended his Tynecastle career rather than him leaving as he recovered from a broken foot sustained, ironically, in a derby at Easter Road in March, the Glasgow-born defender said: “I’m a Hibs player now and I’m not really thinking about Hearts.
“Them being minus 15 points isn’t my problem, I’m concentrating on helping get Hibs to a top-six finish.”
Nevertheless, Mullen admitted this weekend’s derby was the first fixture he’d looked for when the new season’s calendar was unveiled and agreed that as a full back there will be nowhere for him to hide as he’ll find those fans who once supported him only a few yards away throughout the 90 minutes and, no doubt, a little less complimentary towards him now he’s pulling on a green and white shirt.
He said: “I know what to expect and I will brace myself for it. Obviously, I will take a bit of stick. It’s part and parcel of the game and with Tynecastle being such a tight ground I’ll be able to hear it all.
“There will be a lot of familiar faces in the Hearts team, they haven’t been able to sign anyone this summer and have had to put a lot of the young lads in so I know them all.”
In such circumstances a long, hard season has been predicted for the Hearts kids but, Mullen argued, adversity could become an ally. He said: “In the position they are in they have to give it a real blast. They’ve nothing to lose, they’ve got to get those 15 points back but, as I’ve said, I’m not too bothered about that, my focus is on Hibs.”
To that end, many will feel Fenlon doesn’t have his troubles to seek, the Hibs boss having had his own future questioned more than once in recent days with one claim he had to win this weekend to secure his job being met with the reply: “People will write what they want to right these days without any facts to it. You have to put up with it and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Fenlon found the same questions being directed at him after Motherwell substitute Henri Anier’s late goal consigned Hibs to a third successive defeat, ten goals conceded and none scored. But Mullen insisted that while hearing the fans voice their frustration on the final whistle was to be expected, the improvement shown by Fenlon’s players shouldn’t be ignored.
He said: “We haven’t had the best of results. I thought in Malmo we didn’t play badly although the second game was a bit of a freak. It was one of those days but against Motherwell I thought there was a massive improvement and we were less than ten minutes away from not losing the game when we got done by one ball over the top.
“Yes, the crowd were unhappy. They pay their money to watch and fair enough they can voice their opinion. But I felt there were a lot of positives. We definitely deserved at least a point. We looked solid defensively and although Ben Williams had a couple of good saves their goalkeeper [Lee Hollis] also had saves to make.”
And Mullen argued that had Hollis not pulled off an impressive stop from Scott Robertson’s powerfully-struck volley then it could well have been Hibs and not Motherwell who were celebrating.
He said: “It was one of those games which looked as if it had ‘first goal the winner’ written all over it. Their goalie pulled off a great save from Robbo which, had it gone in, might well have proved to be the winner for us. Unfortunately a momentary lapse of concentration, switching off at the back and a ball over the top near the end cost us.
“But that’s how fickle football can be. On another day Robbo’s shot goes in, we win 1-0 and the fans go away delighted with a great start to the season.”