Nine-year-old Sean O’Hanlon’s jaw dropped as he watched his first Merseyside derby erupt in violence, but it wasn’t the fans of Liverpool and Everton battling it out but Anfield stars Bruce Grobbelaar and Steve McManaman.
The Reds goalkeeper went berserk after a weak clearance from his young team-mate led to an Everton goal, directing a tirade of abuse at McManaman before the pair pushed each other in the face, the explosive incident only ending as the winger walked away with the eccentric goalie still raging at him.
Although, as an Everton fan, O’Hanlon should recall with joy the Toffees’ win that September afternoon 18 years ago, it’s the bust-up between the Liverpool players which springs most readily to mind. And, as he prepares for his first taste of an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle tomorrow, Hibs defender O’Hanlon insisted the clash between Grobbelaar and McManaman sums up just what such occasions are all about.
He said: “Growing up I managed to get to quite a few Merseyside derbies at both Goodison and Anfield, they were always special occasions with a great atmosphere. I must have been nine or ten when my Dad and his brother, both Everton fans, took me along to my first one. That was the one when Grobbelaar and McManaman had something of a punch-up. It was strange watching two players from the same team scrapping with each other but I suppose it summed up the passion and excitement of such games, everyone wants to win their big city derby.”
Unfortunately for O’Hanlon, he never got the chance to sample such an occasion himself, departing Goodison at the age of 21 having got a taste for first-team action with Swindon, and although he played in several reserve team derbies in Liverpool, he revealed tomorrow’s showdown with Hearts will be his first in top-flight football.
The third of Colin Calderwood’s eight summer signings, arriving on a two-year deal from MK Dons, O’Hanlon said: “MK Dons didn’t have a derby while Swindon would play Bristol City and Bristol Rovers, games you couldn’t really class as derbies.
“In Liverpool the two clubs were separated only by Stanley Park. Speaking to people in the street it seems it doesn’t matter to many of them what happens in the rest of the season so long as we beat Hearts. You don’t want to let them down.
“I haven’t been to Tynecastle myself but I’ve heard the crowd are right on top of the pitch. Grounds where it is tight like that are my favourites, it makes it all the more exciting and creates a great atmosphere.
“Having not played in a derby before it makes tomorrow one of the biggest games of my career so far. The likes of Ian Murray and Garry O’Connor, local lads and Hibs fans, have been telling me all about it, how special it is and that if you win you can enjoy the next couple of days.”
O’Hanlon is certain there will be as much passion as Grobbelaar and McManaman displayed all those years ago, but is equally adamant that things won’t get out of hand tomorrow. “I’ve experienced the highs and lows of the Liverpool derby, the joy of winning, the despair of losing so I can empathise with what the supporters will be going through tomorrow.
“They can give full vent to their feelings from the stands but as players we have to cope with the emotions of the occasion as well as having that necessary aggression. It’s getting the balance.
“We have to make sure we channel everything the right way. Discipline is a big thing in these games. A silly yellow card can lead to another and then you find yourselves down to ten men, Fortunately, the players we have here at Easter Road are disciplined, we can control ourselves and I am sure we will be fine.”
Given that Hearts have been unbeaten in their last seven clashes with their biggest rivals, Paulo Sergio’s side will go into the match as favourites, particularly as they are at home. O’Hanlon, however, doesn’t quite see it that way. And if Hibs fans fret a little over the apparent fragility of their back four, which should take on a new look with O’Hanlon’s return from a broken toe and the return from Celtic of Richie Towell who will start at right back, the Easter Road stopper reckons Hearts supporters should be just as wary of Garry O’Connor.
The Hibees hitman has scored in four successive matches and with Akpo Sodje and Junior Agogo on the comeback trail after injury, allied to the capture of Scotland Under-21 striker Leigh Griffiths who will also go straight into the squad provided the necessary paperwork can be cleared in time, O’Hanlon reckons Calderwood’s side will soon be boasting plenty of firepower.
He said: “Garry, Akpo and Junior are all big, strong boys. But they are also goalscorers which will give us a formidable frontline once they are all fully fit. Garry is in top form at the moment.”
However, O’Connor goals against Kilmarnock and St Mirren counted for nothing as basic errors cost Hibs dearly although O’Hanlon insisted he didn’t feel any added responsibility as he lines up, at the age of 28, alongside fellow defenders averaging 20 years old.
He said: “The same guys who played against Killie and St Mirren went up to Inverness and kept a clean sheet, which not too many teams will do. The arrival of Richie will bring more competition.”
The trip to Gorgie also gives O’Hanlon the opportunity to start, once again, to win over the Hibs fans, his debut against Celtic having been cut short as he broke a toe in his right foot, an injury which has forced him onto the sidelines for the Easter Road club’s last three SPL matches although he did return in the 5-0 Scottish Communities League Cup win over Berwick Rangers.
“It’s been frustrating, as a new player at a new club you want to make an impact right away so it was disappointing to be injured in what was a nothing challenge.”