He even had a custom-made shirt designed specially for the occasion. With a cheeky reference to his recent time spent helping a tradesman friend with a painting and decorating job to bring in money while the wages of the Hearts’ squad were delayed, a handwritten proclamation on Ian Black’s undershirt read: “I’ll paint this place maroon.”
He revealed the message by lifting his maroon Hearts top at the end of an Edinburgh derby in which he had played a major role in doing, in one sense, just as his message had promised.
The kind of game that features three fouls in the opening 45 seconds is one bound to be relished by the combative midfielder. Black showed yesterday that he loves to dish out a meaty challenge as much as lure an opponent into making one.
He had a say in most of the talking points that emanated from the Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, bar the two late goals by Andy Webster and Rudi Skacel that won the game for Hearts by 3-1.
His ability to draw his opponent into a foul was the reason behind two of the four yellow cards administered to Hibs players. Indeed, his penchant for attracting a tackle deemed worthy of a booking was evident from the off. Lewis Stevenson, Black’s opposite number in the Hibs midfield, should perhaps, as a veteran of many Edinburgh derbies, known better than to fall into Black’s trap in the opening minutes, although referee Calum Murray was harsh in brandishing a caution when it appeared only a degree of clumsiness was Stevenson’s only fault as he entered the challenge with Hearts’ No. 8.
It appeared an honest attempt to win the ball by Stevenson, but Black had already tallied the first point in his mission to taunt and tease. He is the man they love to hate – Hibs fans, and fans of the many SPL teams who have encountered his abrasive on-field style.
He scored his second significant individual victory in the second half, when Victor Palsson’s name went into Murray’s notebook by virtue of a rash challenge on Black as the diminutive Hearts man sprinted clear on the left flank.
His detractors, often with substantial reason, decry him as an aggressive, in-your-face, wind-up merchant who should concentrate more on emphasising his natural football talent rather than indulging too often in the physical element of the game. But, when set free of the demons that inhibit his temperament, Black displays undoubted artistic ability – as has been showcased with increasing frequency in recent weeks.
Two-and-a-half weeks ago in a 4-0 Hearts win over Dunfermline, Black posted an accomplished display as a creative midfielder that ranks among his best performances since arriving at Tynecastle from Inverness in the summer of 2009. Against the Pars, he rarely, if ever, committed a foul. It is no wonder that – despite his matchday role as the haring, snarling antithesis to the ice cool Hearts boss Paulo Sergio – Black has become very much key to his manager’s gameplan.
While his range of passing and grit in combat was similarly impressive yesterday, however, Black was never going to breeze through an Edinburgh derby without courting some controversy. He firmly met his objective of dazzling and riling to a degree that perfectly suited all that is embraced about an Edinburgh derby.
One effort to spark post-match debate, as is the wont of the 26-year-old midfielder, did backfire. Jamie Hamill is normally Hearts’ penalty taker but Black took full responsibility by grabbing the ball. His spot-kick at 0-0, however, was superbly palmed away by Graham Stack.
Never one to shy away from a challenge – both in the sense of a 50-50 tackle or a wider contest – Black, despite his disappointment at failing to hand Hearts a deserved first-half lead, went on to shine.
He struck two rasping long-range efforts that came within inches of beating Stack after the break. His first forced the Hibs goalkeeper into both a second brilliant save and conceding a corner kick, from which Black floated a cross from the right towards Webster, who nodded the ball forward before Ryan McGowan headed the opening goal.
The piece de resistance of his afternoon came in the build-up to a chance, subsequently spurned by Andy Driver, that should have extended Hearts’ lead to 3-1.
With all eyes on the ball and the surrounding ruck of players on the halfway line between the two dugouts, Black, from his confined space amid the crowd, launched a sublime pass over everyone and into the path of Driver’s clever run on the opposite flank.
Hibs captain Ian Murray, four years Black’s senior, said of the T-shirt revealed by his opponent after the match: “Probably because I’m a little bit older now, but [I think] Blackie will look back on that in a few years’ time . . . it’s a bit cringeworthy, to be honest. But, that’s what the fans like, sometimes.”
Black knows that because he is himself a fan. As most Hearts players lapped up the post-match applause with a bow before the away fans, Black positioned himself a few steps back from his team mates to take in the whole scene. It was important for a lifelong Jambo like him to digest and mentally record the memory of such a satisfying day.
Easter Road rediscovered its natural predominantly green tint as the fans emptied to reveal thousands of seats, but the home of Hibs, in a metaphorical sense, had Ian Black stamped all over it.