Talk of Edinburgh’s natural order brought a pantomime build-up to this Easter Road derby.
In the end, Scott Allan and Jamie Maclaren took centre stage to leave Hearts fighting to stay amongst the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top-six cast.
Hibs’ strong second-half display earned them a fifth successive home win over their city rivals dating back to April 2015. Little separated the sides during an evenly contested opening half, but the hosts raised their game after the break to score twice.
Hearts are now sixth in the league table and will be conscious that seventh-placed Motherwell will close to within one point should they beat Hamilton this afternoon. It was a difficult night for the visitors in Leith, especially during that second-half onslaught.
Allan’s well-taken strike broke the deadlock and Maclaren hit the crossbar before claiming Hibs’ second. Neil Lennon, the Easter Road manager, finished the evening feeling content after losing to Hearts in the Scottish Cup in January. After that tie, the Northern Irishman took umbrage at comments by his Hearts counterpart Craig Levein. He had talked of “restoring the natural order” in derbies, meaning his team would come out on top as they mostly have done throughout his playing and managing days.
Lennon was keen to prove him wrong. There was a toothlessness about the visitors on the few occasions they did manage to get in behind their opponents. When chances began arriving at the other end, the Hibs attacking players didn’t waste them.
The victory opens up a 12-point gap between the clubs in the table. Hibs are now just one point behind third-placed Aberdeen, who visit Partick Thistle this afternoon.
Hearts had arrived in Leith with odds stacked firmly against them, of course. They effectively had their backs to the wall before a ball was kicked due to mounting injuries. Don Cowie, David Milinkovic, Arnaud Djoum, Demetri Mitchell, Jamie Brandon and Rory Currie were all sidelined. However, captain Christophe Berra made the starting line-up with the aid of a pain-killing ankle injection. His central defensive partner John Souttar also overcame a tight hamstring to play.
Hibs reinstated Paul Hanlon in place of Ryan Porteous as they set about protecting their proud recent record in Edinburgh derbies. Only once in the previous ten meetings between these clubs had Hearts emerged victorious. The travelling fans were in buoyant mood, though, and launched a couple of smokebombs on to the pitch from the away stand. That delayed kick-off for a few minutes.
When the action did begin, the tackles started flying. Home supporters howled for fouls several times inside the opening ten minutes with every ball passionately contested. Hearts fashioned the first clear opening just after the ten-minute mark with a neat passing move. Lewis Moore, Michael Smith, Steven Naismith and Marcus Godinho were all involved in the build-up before Godinho’s low ball was fired at goal by Smith, only to be blocked by Darren McGregor’s arm.
Levein had another injury to contend with moments later when Harry Cochrane went down clutching the top of his hamstring. Fellow 16-year-old Anthony McDonald was the replacement in a like-for-like swap. Whether he could have any influence on the fray was another issue given the frenetic and often chaotic passages taking place.
Hibs midfielder John McGinn rasped a rising drive over Jon McLaughlin’s crossbar on 24 minutes. Then came an incisive run by Martin Boyle through the centre of the Hearts midfield. It ended with McLaughlin holding the wing-back’s right-footed attempt from 18 yards. There was little separating the teams and you sensed a mistake might be required to create an opening.
One arrived a minute from the break when Ofir Marciano, the Hibs goalkeeper, failed to collect another Godinho cross from the right. The ball fell kindly for Darren McGregor to clear, and those in green breathed again. The Hearts fans were joyous at half-time. Their understrength team were holding their biggest rivals in their own backyard – and occasionally looking dangerous in attack too.
In the middle of the pitch, Joaquim Adao’s aggression and physicality stifled Allan’s talent during the first 45 minutes. That wouldn’t last. Levein’s surprise decision to deploy Michael Smith in central midfield beside the Angolan ensured stability and experience through the centre. The main problem from Levein’s perspective appeared to be nullifying Boyle. His pace and direct style left Hearts’ makeshift left-back, Connor Randall, unsettled and looking uncomfortable.
Allan came to life just at the right time for Hibs after freeing himself from Adao’s shackles. When Florian Kamberi and Paul Hanlon exchanged passes from a throw-in on Hibs’ left, Hanlon laid the ball into Allan’s path on 58 minutes. Twenty yards from goal, he steadied himself before sweeping a crisp finish low into the bottom corner of the net with his left foot.
The on-loan Celtic midfielder set off to savour his first Hibs goal in three years. Now it was the home fans’ turn to unleash a smokebomb. Their team were beginning to catch fire and almost went 2-0 up within a matter of minutes. Maclaren cut inside from the right and lashed an attempt off the Hearts crossbar with his left foot, although McLaughlin seemed to get a touch to the ball as it flew past him.
Hearts needed a response. They forced an attack and Steven Naismith’s angled shot deflected off Efe Ambrose, prompting loud appeals for a penalty. However, they fell 2-0 behind ten minutes from time. A ball into the penalty area was allowed to bounce around without being properly cleared, and Maclaren duly stroked it into the same corner where Allan had planted the opener.
The goal ended the match as a contest. A scoring chance in stoppage-time landed with Berra, but his shot flew wide as if to sum up a night when little went right for anyone in maroon.