Hibs stand just 90 minutes way from negotiating an entire season unbeaten in Edinburgh derbies, a feat the Easter Road club haven’t achieved for 12 years.
And, in fact, Pat Fenlon’s players have the chance to even go one better than the class of 2001 given that that unbeaten run extended to four clashes with arch-rivals Hearts whereas Sunday will represent a fifth and final derby of the season.
Then, as now, the Hibees’ record boasted three draws and one win, this season’s victory seeing Hibs dump the Scottish Cup holders out of this season’s competition at the first time of asking only a few months after their 5-1 humiliation at Hampden. Given Hibs’ miserable derby record prior to this season, the outcome of the matches between Edinburgh’s big two over the course of the past few months has restored a measure of pride around Easter Road even if the hurt inflicted last May will linger for many years to come.
“It’s a step forward from where Hibs have been in derbies over the past three or four years,” ventured former goalkeeper Nick Colgan. “In my opinion, while it goes a little way to make the fans and the players who played that day feel a little bit happier it certainly doesn’t make up for a severe Cup final defeat.
“I couldn’t make it up to Glasgow for it, but I sat at home glued to the television, then cringing like every Hibs fan. So while it was good to see them win the cup game [this season], in my book it wasn’t payback time.”
Nevertheless, former Republic of Ireland star Colgan, who will watch Sunday’s match from Dublin, acknowledges remaining undefeated throughout a season in such fiercely contested fixtures deserves recognition, recalling season 2000/01 when manager Alex McLeish’s new-look side got their unbeaten run underway on the opening day of the campaign with a visit to Tynecastle.
Colgan said: “It was a strange way to start a season with a derby, particularly as the final game of the previous season had also been at Tynecastle. I think a lot of people were a bit unsure about us, there were a few new faces in the side such as Ulrik Laursen and Didier Agathe while we also had a new system with Franck Sauzee playing behind Paul Fenwick and Gary Smith.
“Big Franck was such an amazing player you just had to find somewhere to play him. He couldn’t get around in midfield but he could read the game so well he got himself positioned perfectly behind Paul and Gary where he could pick everything up.
“I also remember we’d been away to Germany pre-seson and some of the lads decided to shave their heads on the final night. Luckily I was tucked up in bed early so I had a full head of hair but I don’t think Alex McLeish was too happy with the attention it drew just before a big derby game.”
While that match ended 0-0 the next derby that season has its place in Hibs folklore, a 6-2 hammering of the Jambos with Mixu Paatelainen claiming a hat-trick. Tongue-in-cheek, Colgan said: “I don’t recall too much of the first game but I kind of remember the second. We didn’t get off to a great start with Andy Kirk scoring early for them but then Mixu scored two just before half-time.
“Had we gone in 1-0 down it might have been a totally different affair and maybe even at 1-1 both teams would have been relatively happy. But 2-1 kind of shook them, put them on the back foot and after David Zitelli scored a third early in the second half, every time we got an opportunity we seemed to score.
“Antti Niemi actually played really well in goal for them. I remember speaking to him at the end, part of the goalkeepers’ union thing, and saying I felt for him as he’d made some cracking saves. But at the same time you’d such beaten your local rivals in style so there wasn’t too much sympathy.”
The remaining two derbies ended in draws, 1-1 at Tynecastle and 0-0 at Easter Road when Paatelainen missed a late penalty. That game had come, as will the final derby of this season, two weeks before Hibs were due to face Celtic in the final of the Scottish Cup.
Colgan said: “I think at that time we were the team in the ascendancy. We had a decent squad, we’d had a decent season and confidence was high going into derbies, we fancied ourselves. There was the tension and apprehension you get in the build-up because of the enormity of the fixture but we were full of confidence.” Again, now as then, Colgan appreciates Hibs boss Pat Fenlon will be attempting the fine balancing act of ensuring Hibs pick up as many points from their remaining SPL games ahead of the demands of the Cup final, a difficult task as McLeish discovered.
Colgan, now goalkeeping coach at Huddersfield, said: “I think we possibly went off the boil in the last couple of games leading up to the final, I think that’s natural.
“But we also had the incident with Russell Latapy before the derby when he misbehaved and was left out for the rest of the season. We were missing one of our best players but unfortunately that was a decision which had to be made by the manager in light of what had happened.
“We were naturally disappointed with the outcome of the final itself. Celtic scored just before half-time, a bit of a mis-hit shot from young Jackie McNamara which bobbled through the legs of Gary Smith and in to the far corner.” Two goals from Henrik Larsson guided Celtic to a comfortable win in the end, something Fenlon will be keen to avoid although it goes without saying that Neil Lennon’s SPL-winning side will go into the final on May 26 as favourites.
Colgan said: “It’s a difficult time coming up to a Cup final. You want your team to be firing on all cylinders on the day, at it’s strongest but it’s a tricky situation for the manager to weigh up as he rests some and gives others game time. Pat Fenlon won’t want to give anything away to Hibs’ biggest rivals.
“Hibs will want to get through unbeaten by Hearts for the season but they’ll also be desperate to come through it unscathed in terms of injuries ahead of the final.”