Pairing Hearts and Hibs together in the same Betfred League Cup group would be commercial gold for all concerned.
This evening’s draw, live on BT Sport 2, could produce an earlier-than-expected Edinburgh derby if the stars align favourably.
Tournament organisers, the Scottish Professional Football League, have made it possible by placing both clubs in the “north” category of the regionalised draw. Hearts are first seeds and Hibs second. Each of the eight sections drawn tonight will contain one first seed, one second seed and eight unseeded teams.
After two seasons without regular derby hysteria, Capital fans are desperate to resume rivalries. Hibs’ success as a Championship club eliminating Premiership Hearts from the Scottish Cup in each of the last two years adds extra spice to the duelling.
The new League Cup sections could provide Hearts with a quick chance for some redemption. “It would be exciting. The fans will love it if Hearts and Hibs are drawn against each other,” said Henry Smith, Hearts’ goalkeeper when the League Cup last included a group format in the early 1980s. “The Hibbies have the bragging rights just now after knocking us out of the Scottish Cup in the last two years. It would be a quick fix for Hearts if they are drawn against Hibs and beat them.
“Edinburgh fans love the derbies. They are always played in front of full houses in a great atmosphere.
“Both sets of fans will get the chance to size up their squads after getting new players in. We’d get to see how far Hibs have come along because they weren’t far behind. They won the Championship and they’ve come up and I think they have a good manager in Neil Lennon.
“He’s signed good players and they’ve done the business for him. Hibs are strong under Lennon so it would be interesting to see who would come out on top if Hearts and Hibs are in the same section.”
Neither of the Edinburgh clubs took part last summer when the League Cup group phase was reintroduced. Both were involved in European competition. Now they must prepare for competitive domestic football as early as July 15.
The revised format means all eight group winners plus the four best runners up advance to the Betfred Cup’s last 16, to be joined by Scotland’s four European representatives – Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and St Johnstone.
Smith recalls the group sections in his early days at Tynecastle before they were abandoned at the end of the 1983/84 season. He admits they had their advantages.
“I remember half the time we got drawn against Rangers in those days. Rangers were always the favourites to go through,” he said. “We gave them good games at times but we always came up short against them. We usually ended up playing them at some stage and we just didn’t do so well against them.
“Those group were games after the summer break and the fans looked forward to them. They wanted the Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday games to get going. Maybe they were gluttons for punishment but there were decent crowds. I remember everyone standing in the Tynecastle shed and it was full.
“I enjoyed the games because it was a break from the training. You always had midweek games to look forward to. I liked it but others didn’t because they wanted more rest.”
Modern football is almost a 12-months-a-year occupation, though. “It’s an early start so players aren’t going to get much time off. The first game is six weeks from now, so there’s not much rest,” said Smith.
“Having said that, once I’ve been off for a couple of weeks I’m usually wanting to get back to work. I get bored and the wife finds stuff for you to do in the house. When pre-season starts, you just want to come home and rest so you can go again the next day.
“When I played, it was about four or five days before you saw a ball. These days it’s different because all the hard work is done with the ball.
“The League Cup could end up like trying to qualify for the World Cup or the Euros. I would go for a straight knockout tournament, so you’re either in or out. Then you can get on with the league games.
“I see the other side of the argument because games help you in pre-season. It’s just that all these games add up at the end of the season, then you’ve got players moaning that they’ve played 60-odd games.”