Sam Stanton has tasted only 15 minutes of derby day action but those two brief appearances as a substitute have already hardened the Hibs kid to the ecstasy and agony of clashes with Capital rivals Hearts.
Back in August he couldn’t get off the pitch at Tynecastle quickly enough, a Callum Paterson header having consigned the Hibees to defeat in a game which many had insisted they simply couldn’t lose as the Gorgie club began the long, long fight against the deduction of 15 points imposed after crashing into administration.
Fast forward to January and the midfielder just stood and drank in the scenes as the Hibs fans who had made up the 20,106 crowd – the biggest since the redevelopment of Easter Road was completed – celebrated Liam Craig’s late penalty which earned Terry Butcher’s side their first derby win in three attempts this season following the defeat in the League Cup to the Jambos at Easter Road in October.
That he’d stepped off the bench little more than a minute earlier mattered little, what counted was the chance to enjoy the sort of high only those who have been out there and done it can fully appreciate.
A bit-part player Stanton might have been on those occasions, but now, as a fixture in Butcher’s team, he’s looking forward to his first start against Hearts and with his fingers crossed he’ll again be jumping for joy along with the 3500 Hibs fans who snapped up their club’s allocation of tickets almost two weeks ago.
Today he said: “I think it’s possibly more nerve-racking sitting on the bench because you can’t influence what’s going on from there. You are almost like a spectator in that sense, you are just sat there hoping your team is going to do well.
“And at Tynecastle the Hearts fans are sat all around so you do hear the occasional shouts of abuse directed at you, but that’s just part and parcel of things so you just ignore it all.”
Hibs’ win on January 2 completed a wonderful Festive period for those in green and white, completing a hat-trick of victories which had started with a win over Ross County in Dingwall on Boxing Day and followed up by a 3-0 triumph over Kilmarnock in the final game of 2013, reckoned by many to have been the club’s best performance of the season.
Since then though it has all gone horribly wrong, just one win in 11 Scottish Premiership matches, the latest defeat by St Johnstone ending what had once again become a fading hope of clinching a place in the top six and raising, in the minds of some, the spectre of Butcher’s players being dragged into the battle to avoid ending up in the newly introduced relegation play-off spot.
A drop into the Championship is, of course, all but inevitable for Hearts but, Stanton insisted, the fact Hibs could be the side to condemn them to the drop on Sunday is the sub-plot which hasn’t been a topic for discussion among his team-mates – even if it is exercising the thinking of their fans.
He said: “Winning the last derby was great, we’d picked up a lot of points over Christmas and New Year and it all seemed to be going pretty smoothly. You can’t get away from the fact we’ve had a very poor run since but all you can concentrate on is doing as well as you can in your next game. It’s been very disappointing but even last weekend at McDiarmid Park we still felt we could get into the top six.
“Now we have to look to win as many of the remaining games as we can, starting on Sunday. To that end we are only interested in helping ourselves, of getting the three points. If you start getting caught up in what might or might not happen you lose concentration, so it is far better focusing on what a win would mean to us, nothing else.”
It goes without saying that Gary Locke’s players will be determined to do all they can to ensure they emerge from the derby with their top-flight status intact – at least for a little while longer – but, Stanton claimed, he and his team-mates can do themselves a whole lot of good by snatching the game’s first goal, something which has been missing in recent weeks.
He said: “We’ve made it hard for ourselves. We’ve started games well in the past two or three weeks, we did it again against St Johnstone, but we’ve been unable to capitalise and then found ourselves falling behind. We need to get a goal when we are on top, we have to take our chances and make the opposition pay.”
Goals, though, have been hard to come by all season with club captain Liam Craig the top scorer with nine, six of them in the league, that half-dozen matched only by striker James Collins. Stanton, however, confesses to being puzzled as to why that should be, adamant an analysis of how the goals are distributed shows Hibs do carry a threat from most areas.
He said: “Obviously we just haven’t scored enough but if you look at it, there are goals throughout the team, not just up front. Liam’s done well, other midfielders have scored and there’s Jordon Forster with three from right-back while Michael Nelson has also got a couple. But getting the first goal in a game in this league is vitally important and is something we haven’t done often enough recently.”
If Stanton is something of a novice when if comes to derbies, the guys in maroon he’ll be facing come Sunday certainly aren’t strangers. Locke’s team is packed with youngsters of a similar age as a consequence of the punishment imposed on the Gorgie club following their financial meltdown.
He said: “I’ve played against most of them several times through all the age levels, some since the age of 13 and I’ve also met a couple of them while away with Scotland. We’ve enjoyed a few East of Scotland Shield wins against them.
“Every derby proves to be a fiery occasion. You learn from an early age what it’s all about, it doesn’t matter if you are playing under-14 or under-20, they are all passionate affairs and there doesn’t tend to be much in the games.
“The size of the crowd is, of course, the big difference. It makes for a very intense atmosphere but these are the big occasions, the big games you want to play in. It’s something to look forward to.”