Welcome to the new and improved Ian Black. Extra strength, extra special, extraordinary. The Edinburgh derby offered the sternest test yet of the Hearts midfielder’s transformation into one of the most effective and disciplined players in the country. It was an examination he passed with merit.
The reason, he says, is self-education and restraint. So far this season Black’s performances have prompted much eulogy but some still regarded him as a time-bomb. Dominating Hibs with a calm authority in the face of some intense provocation effectively signed and sealed his revamp. The new Blackie is here to stay.
That can only be good for Hearts if he continues pinging those diagonal balls in behind opposition defences. Black’s lofted pass to Craig Beattie for the derby’s opening goal was a moment of elegance not always associated with this player. However, without the rankling and tantrums, Hearts’ No. 8 is an altogether different proposition. He can certainly play when he wants to.
Jorge Claros could doubtless testify to Black’s new-found maturity. The Hibs’ midfielder probed and prodded his opponent all afternoon on Sunday to no avail. Black’s only reaction came in the second half after being fouled by Claros near the corner flag. He reacted with a cross-armed gesture indicating to the Honduran that Hibs were finished and had no way back into the game, even though Hearts held only a 1-0 advantage at that point.
In previous derbies, Claros would have been confronted by an angry, remonstrating Black seeking retribution. There was no sign of such frustration this time. “That’s a side of my game that I’ve been working on,” explained the 27-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “It just comes with experience, to be honest. I’m getting older and wiser and just learning to behave now and concentrate on the football.
“There is always more niggle in the derbies but I just concentrated on the game. I want to help the boys out by doing my bit on the pitch. What happened with Claros was just a wee bit of banter, just a wee joke between us. He was all right. He’s not a bad player but obviously he’ll be disappointed now because we’ve got one over on them.”
The success against Hibs was the by-product of hard work and single-mindedness. Perhaps to spite the club hierarchy who have yet to pay their wages, Hearts players dug deep and produced a strong and defiant display which their rivals simply couldn’t counter.
As is becoming the case more and more often, Black was central to the victory but he was quick to deflect credit on to colleagues.
“I’m very pleased on a personal level. I’m delighted with the performance, not just my own but as a group I thought the team was brilliant on Sunday. It was all down to a work ethic and helping each other,” he continued.
“Beating Hibs is pleasing but three points is the most important thing. We’re trying to secure our place in the top six and we knew it would be hard in a derby match. But the boys worked hard and played well. I thought we thoroughly deserved to win the game.”
That they did. Along with Black and Andy Webster, another who simply overpowered Hibs was Craig Beattie. The Scotland internationalist is on the verge of becoming a Tynecastle idol after only three appearances in maroon.
Naturally, a goal against Hibs helped endear him to his new public no end. Black recalls the build-up to the goal vividly and with much pleasure.
“We were speaking about that kind of move before the game,” he explained. “I just skipped by a player and I saw him moving out the corner of my eye. I thought, ‘well, I’ll go for it’. It turned out to be one of my better balls of the season and it came off. Beattie’s first touch was great and he just slid it into the net.
“As soon as the pass went over the defender’s head I knew we had a good chance of scoring. I know Beattie has a lot of experience. He’s a great finisher and a great player. As soon it the ball reached him I was confident he would put it away.”
Hibs offered little in the way of a comeback with the Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald inactive for much of the afternoon before Suso Santana’s goal sparked euphoria. “I know they never threatened us much but we never really studied how they would set their team up or anything,” said Black.
“We didn’t really look at them before the match. We just looked at our own strengths and how we could punish them. It certainly worked.” The next task for the new-look Black and his team-mates is to dispense with St Mirren and secure a place in the semi-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup. The final few weeks of the campaign hold the potential to be tense and dramatic for Hearts supporters. Beating Hibs is an ideal launchpad.
“The boys are buzzing now and it’s great to beat Hibs before we go into the cup game with St Mirren,” said Black. “We’re absolutely delighted with how Sunday went and it creates a good spirit for tomorrow at Paisley. We’ll see what that brings. We feel Sunday’s result can push us on towards Europe.
“It’s given us a big lift, beating Hibs in the Edinburgh derby. We’re all excited and can’t wait for the final few weeks of the season.”