Anyone would think the fates were conspiring against Hibs. Not only was their opening SPL game refereed by Craig Thomson, the official synonymous with – and, in some quarters, blamed for – their Scottish Cup final defeat to Hearts, but now, in only their second competitive game since that disastrous day in May, they face the dreaded prospect of having to welcome their merry-making city rivals into their own manor for what promises to be one big Jambo party – win, lose or draw.
Hibs’ start to the season would hardly be any more demoralising if St Mirren, their match-day three opponents, were to sign Rudi Skacel and unleash the Hearts idol on them in Paisley a week on Saturday.
It was always going to be this way for whoever lost, though. This is the immediate legacy of that one-sided Hampden encounter less than three months ago. All bragging rights wiped out in one fell swoop and handed on a plate to the opposition in exchange for a summer of humiliation, gloom and endless mocking. And to make matters worse for Hibs, Hearts and their 4000-strong army of fans who have sold out the away end, will descend on Easter Road in the knowledge that a win will take them top of the league and almost certainly keep their hosts rooted to the bottom.
Aside from winning a derby cup final 5-1, there could scarcely be a more appetising scenario for those whose allegiances lie in the west side of the city. If the cup final was the main course, this Sunday is very much the Jambos’ double espresso after the dessert. However, while Hearts and their people are understandably viewing it as the chance to inflict a further dollop of ignominy on their battle-weary rivals, the first derby of the new season could provide some kind of cup final closure for Hibs.
In welcoming Hearts across town this weekend, the Easter Road club are effectively being asked to face up to their demons. While it may seem cruel on Pat Fenlon’s men to be reacquainted so soon with the men who stripped them of their dignity in such ruthless fashion, perhaps it could prove to be just what the doctor ordered – a way of getting the bad stuff out their system, if you like. Had the first derby been scheduled for October, say, there would have always been a sense of dread lingering over Easter Road. While that may still be the case over the coming days – particularly in light of the teams’ contrasting opening-day results – at least Hibs fans know that, whatever happens this weekend, they will have seen the last of their pesky neighbours until 2013 and will be free to begin the recovery process. That said, everyone at Hibs has to view 12.30pm on Sunday as the chance to start on the road to redemption.
After all, what better way to banish the ghouls of the 19th of May than actually doling out a revenge job on their assailants? Granted, everyone at Hibs knows nothing they do in a league match can ever trump what Hearts did to them at the end of last season, but a win on Sunday would still give them a massive and timely psychological lift. In fact, it could be just the catalyst they’ve been crying out for over the past few years.
Hibs fans, needless to say, love a derby victory just as much as Hearts fans do. It can make all the other struggles seem insignificant. It’s surely no coincidence that Hibs’ dire form and the general air of despondency around Easter Road has come about at a time when Hearts are in the throes of an 11-game unbeaten derby run. Many Hibs fans are already braced for the possibility of that sequence being extended to 12 on Sunday and their side staying in bottom spot with no points after two games. If that scenario could somehow be spun on its head, though, and their team were sitting with three points on the board at this time next week, level with Hearts and having ended their dominant derby run, it could prove to have more of a galvanising effect on Hibs than anything else they’ve done over the last two seasons.
After being brutally shorn of their confidence and pride, Hibs desperately need to regain some self-respect. The fans want something to cling to. They yearn for a derby hero to idolise. They want pride restored to the green jersey. They want to start believing in their team again. They demand signs of hope for the future. A derby victory for the first time in over three years would be as good a way as any to start the recovery process.