Forty-two long months Hibs fans had been forced to wait for a derby victory, three-and-a-half years of having Hearts supporters lord it over them, 12 matches approached with varying degrees of hope but all ending without the win they craved.
Little wonder, then, that Easter Road erupted with a heady mix of joy and relief as, finally, their misery was brought to an end. Forget the fact Pat Fenlon’s side had won ugly. A derby victory, particularly after such purgatory, is a thing of beauty, a priceless work of art.
The Tynecastle outfit and their supporters will still, and rightly so, continue to point to May 19 and the humiliation and embarrassment which they visited on their Capital rivals at Hampden.
It will be a long, long time before the hurt and pain of that day, if ever, passes, but all Fenlon and his players can do is help salve that distress each and every time they are confronted by those maroon shirts.
As club captain James McPake, sidelined through a nagging back problem, reminded everyone after David Wotherspoon’s deflected strike had knocked the Scottish Cup holders out of the competition in the same calendar year they’d won it so convincingly, those now wearing the green and white jersey won’t allow anyone to walk all over them.
The determination to ensure that wouldn’t happen on this occasion was evident throughout, Fenlon’s players digging deep in a show of defiance for lengthy spells as Hearts attempted to steamroller their way over them as they had done six months ago.
But, as Fenlon, McPake et al have been declaring for long enough, this is a totally different Hibs side to the one which capitulated so meekly in that 5-1 demolition. Only four who started that day faced Hearts this time, such has been the overhaul which the Hibs boss engineered over the course of the summer, the radical surgery performed having already produced rewards with the Easter Road club taking the SPL by surprise as, with the halfway point in sight, they’ve soared to second place, just one point behind champions and leaders Celtic.
As enjoyable as that experience has been, though, this was the acid test as far as the fans were concerned and probably Fenlon was well aware that much of the good work that has taken place could unravel over the course of just 90 minutes, conscious that another defeat at the hands of John McGlynn’s Jambos would deflate a support which has slowly but surely been returning with each passing week.
Further evidence of that, as Fenlon pointed out, came in the shape of Easter Road’s biggest crowd of the season, up from the 12,887 who witnessed the first derby of the season on this ground, to a little more than 17,000. Still short of the stadium’s 20,400 capacity but given the Hearts support on each occasion was virtually identical, indicating a healthy rise in the number of home fans.
As always the level of excitement had hit fever pitch long before kick-off, Hibs fans goading their rivals about Hearts’ current financial plight while the visitors gave as good as they got by reminding everyone, as if it were needed, that they’d “only won 5-1.”
However, as so often happens on such occasions, the match itself didn’t live up to the hype, a scrappy affair which Hearts, with some justification, could claim they didn’t deserve to lose. Again, though, in derbies the better team seems to lose more than their fair share of these clashes.
Twice Hearts could have been ahead in the opening quarter of an hour, the first clear chance coming within two minutes as Arvydas Novikovas flung a cross to the back post where Callum Paterson rose to nod it downwards only to see Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams show acute reaction to block with his knees.
Williams then pulled off a fantastic reflex save to push away Marius Zaliukas’ header after it had thumped off the chest of Paul Hanlon while the obvious threat of Novikovas against 34-year-old Alan Maybury was a worry, the winger delivering one cross which was only inches out of the reach of Paterson and then another which clipped Williams’ far post.
Thereafter, though, even half-chances dried up for the Tynecastle side, their lack of a cutting edge – they’ve only scored 14 goals in 16 SPL matches – became all too evident although Hibs, other than a wicked Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick which fizzed towards the near post, were hardly battering down the door to Jamie MacDonald’s goal.
The sight of Griffiths being stretchered off in 54 minutes just seconds after seeing fellow striker Eoin Doyle just fail to get on the end of one of his crosses, appeared to diminish Hibs’ hopes somewhat, the on-loan Wolves hitman having been responsible for 13 of their goals so far this season.
As a replay on the other side of the city became an ever-increasing probability with each passing minute, the game was decided in Hibs’ favour – thanks to a huge slice of luck. Paul Cairney’s superb crossfield pass allowed Wotherspoon a run on Kevin McHattie, the midfielder enjoying a break of the ball as the youngster just failed to stop him before firing in a shot which hit the knee of Zaliukas and looped over the helpless MacDonald.
“Of course it was a shot,” retorted a delighted Wotherspoon when quizzed as to whether he meant it. “I’d crossed every ball up to that point but it sat up nicely so I took a shot, it was deflected and went in.”
It was a goal totally befitting all that had gone before – and after – but it was enough to put Hibs into today’s fifth-round draw with Fenlon succinctly summing up the encounter by saying: “It was not a great spectacle, we weren’t great, but in the end we have won and all that counts in football is winning matches.
“I was delighted for the Hibs fans, it was a particularly good day for them and it has been long overdue. It was a scrappy enough game and Hearts probably shaded part of it but there weren’t loads of chances at either end. But we’ve probably played derbies over the last three years – although I haven’t seen them all – when we have done well and not got anything out of it so you take the good fortune when it’s coming for you.”
Fenlon, however, insisted this result wasn’t revenge and didn’t serve as redemption for what has gone before, adamant that it was simply another step towards where he wants to take his club. He said: “We are trying to rebuild the club back to where it should be.
“What today does is give people belief. It gives the supporters belief, if gives the players massive belief. It’s a slow process to rebuild and make sure we get back to where we should be.
“It’s a victory over Hearts which means a little bit more for everyone but, from my end of it, it is just another step in the right direction.”