ON such moments derbies are decided. A glimpse of magic or, as in this case, an unfathomable blunder, one which will cause Hearts youngster Jordan McGhee many sleepless nights.
Why, oh why, he’ll be asking himself did he lunge in on Lewis Stevenson when the Hibs player was going nowhere, the rashness of youth arguably costing the Gorgie outfit a hard-fought if ill-merited draw as he gifted Easter Road skipper Liam Craig the opportunity to claim victory from the penalty spot.
In so doing Craig hauled Terry Butcher’s side into the top half of the Scottish Premiership and left Hearts marooned at the foot of the table, 16 points adrift and in a worse position than they were in when the season got underway.
The Tynecastle players and management team, naturally, thought referee Bobby Madden had got the decision, coming with just eight minutes of regulation time remaining, wrong while those in green and white were equally certain he was spot-on. “It was the right decision,” declared a jubilant Butcher. “There was no need to make the challenge but Lewis was wiped out.”
It was Hibs’ first penalty in the league this season, Craig staying cool to wrong-foot Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald before revealing the commotion which caused a brief delay actually helped sink the Jambos. He said: “Because it was late in the game I thought I would smash it down the middle but I then had a bit of time to think about it.
“The last few I’ve taken I have waited for the keeper to move so I thought ‘why not do it again?’ Jamie has gone the wrong way early and I have scored. It was what we deserved because I felt throughout the game we were the better team.”
There was little doubt of that, Hibs having gone at their Capital rivals in the same manner they had in the League Cup clash a few weeks ago only to lose their way when Ryan Stevenson caught them with a sucker punch. Once again, though, they couldn’t turn their dominance into goals, thanks largely to the willingness of those in maroon to throw themselves in the way of anything heading MacDonald’s way while Hibs were also guilty at times of a lack of composure both in delivering shots and crosses from either flank as the game was played at a predictably frenetic pace.
Jordon Forster did manage to nod one Craig free-kick off the crossbar as Hibs pinned their opponents back, the only apparent danger, as in the previous meeting of the two clubs, being caught napping, with Callum Paterson almost engineering the opening goal as he broke through the challenge of Michael Nelson probably too easily for the defender’s liking only for Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams to push away Callum Tapping’s shot.
It was a rare moment of worry, though, for Hibs with Jason Cummings forcing MacDonald to tip a header over although the former Hearts kid twice passed up promising openings through his obvious anxiety to make his mark against the club which released him as he battled back from a serious knee injury.
While Hibs continued to pound forward, the home fans in the 20,106 crowd – the biggest since the completion of the rebuilding of Easter Road – became slightly agitated as that opening goal simply refused to come despite the fact that by the early stages of the second half every outfield player had enjoyed at least one attempt on goal.
Scott Robertson went close with a diving header; James Collins saw yet another shot blocked by the body of Brad McKay; McGhee likewise with an effort from Robertson, and then Kevin McHattie got in the way of Jordon Forster’s threatening low cross.
Having scored five in their previous two matches, three of them from corners, it was probably no surprise it was from such a situation Hibs got their noses in front, Paul Hanlon nodding down Craig’s cross for Collins to wheel and crack a close-range shot into the roof of the net.
However, a one-goal lead, despite Hibs’ dominance and the fact they’d only conceded two in their previous seven games, remained a fragile advantage and given the frugality they’d displayed recently they’d have been bitterly disappointed at the manner in which Hearts drew level, David Smith allowed a free run before dispatching a shot which Williams couldn’t hold, the substitute getting to the rebound to see the ball deflect off Ryan McGivern and into the bottom corner of the net.
As Butcher observed, it was the sort of setback which would have rocked Hibs in the not too distant past and while this time round they were back on their heels it was only momentarily as they picked themselves up and went at Hearts again, Stevenson driving into the area only to appear to have taken the wrong option until McGhee inexplicably knocked him over.
And in a frantic ending, McHattie stung the fingers of Williams with a rising shot from a tight angle although Hibs had three terrific chances to extend their lead, Craig firing a low ball across the face of goal which found no takers, Paul Heffernan spun to drill a shot just wide and then Sammy Stanton sent in a cross which eluded Heffernan but found Collins lurking at the back post but unable to direct it into the net.
Hearts also had a shout for a penalty when Jamie Walker went down under the challenge of McGivern, the winger booked for diving which, in Craig’s estimation was the correct call, the midfielder saying: “I thought it was a ridiculous dive and the referee has done great to see it.”
Narrow the eventual victory might have been but a moment worth savouring for Hibs fans who had seen their side win just two of the last 18 derbies.
Butcher said: “I was disappointed to have conceded the goal, that’s not like us but I was delighted with the reaction from the players because in the past there’s been too many times, looking from afar, where the boys have just allowed that to really affect them. And maybe in the past Hearts would have got a point or even won the game.
“But they steeled themselves, came back in to it, dominated again and I thought we thoroughly deserved to win.”
Skipper Craig was likewise delighted, saying: “The boys showed great character to keep fighting and get the result we deserved. We’d been unfortunate in the last two derbies although you have to give Hearts credit as they weathered whatever we threw at them. We were disappointed to concede the equaliser but we’ve talked about togetherness, the character, while I also have to mention the fans, they were excellent and helped pull us through the last ten minutes.
“They’ve had some tough times this season, some difficult results, so it was good to send them home happy, they deserved it more than anyone.”