Three important fixtures remain on Hearts’ 2017 calendar, but one grabs the attention like no other.
Hearts versus Hibs at Tynecastle Park next Wednesday, December 27, could not be more noticeable were it decorated with Christmas lights and a shining silver star.
Hibs are unbeaten in eight Edinburgh derbies dating back to August 2014 and Hearts feel there is a score to settle. Regardless what happens against St Johnstone on Saturday or Aberdeen the following weekend, putting Hibs in their place midweek is crucial.
So much so that it prompted one shareholder at Tuesday’s AGM to question manager Craig Levein on the matter. “When are we going to start standing up to Hibs in derby games? For the last two years, we’ve been bullied. I’ve never seen this. It’s got to change,” he said, before a round of applause.
Gary Locke sat in the front row listening. Now a club ambassador who works full-time behind the scenes at Tynecastle, he couldn’t help but agree with the inquisitor. Locke never lost to Hibs as a player, and suffered only three defeats to his city rivals whilst coaching and managing Hearts. Being outfought by your neighbours isn’t acceptable.
“I’m pretty sure Craig has been just as annoyed as I have been when he’s watched the derbies. We have been bullied in a lot of the derbies recently, that’s right,” admitted Locke. “To win a derby, you have to make sure you win the battle. Craig knows that, I know that, and the players will know that. If we compete as well as we did against Celtic, we’ll give ourselves a great chance of winning the game.”
Ending the champions’ 69-game unbeaten run with a 4-0 victory put Tynecastle into a fit of euphoria. Hearts are now six games unbeaten with three wins in a row and no goals conceded. Locke feels they are now a different proposition to the side which surrendered so meekly at Easter Road in October.
“I would think so. We’re going into this derby with a bit of confidence. That plays a huge part in football. It’s not just the fact you’re getting bullied in games, if you’re confident going into it then it makes a massive difference. Sunday must have given the boys a lift, it must have done.
“They played brilliantly against the best team in the country. I was up at the training ground yesterday and the spirit is fantastic. Hopefully we can carry that into Saturday and then it’s the derby on Wednesday, which is a huge game for us.
“Hibs are undefeated in eight derbies and will want to keep that run going, but we’ve got to make sure we stop it.
“It’s been brutal watching Edinburgh derbies recently,” laughed Locke. “As an ex-player, you’d love to be out there playing. That’s always something I’ve found really difficult, even when I was a coach and an assistant here. You’re gutted you can’t be on the pitch.
“I’ve been just as disappointed as any Hearts supporter because we haven’t done that great in the last few derbies. I’m pretty sure it’s a different team now. Some boys have taken time to settle in and we have a couple of young lads who have come into the side and done fantastically well.
“We are a different team from that last derby we played at Easter Road in October. Hopefully we can show that in this one.”
Locke empathises with the pressure on Levein in trying to reverse fortunes against Hibs, who sit fourth in the table in their first season back in the Premiership. Locke guided Hearts through administration with dignity during season 2013/14, winning four out of five Capital derbies that year.
“It’s such a big club that you’re judged on everything you do at Hearts. That’s one thing people don’t realise, but you certainly realise it when you’re put in the manager’s chair,” he said. “There is pressure on you every day. It’s the third biggest club in the country by a mile.
“You have to make sure you get results and that you handle yourself in a way that befits the third biggest club in the country. That pressure is always there. Craig will know that, everybody at the club knows it. If you can win the derby, it gives everybody a massive boost.
“We’re well aware Neil [Lennon] will have Hibs fired up as well. They’ve got some quality in their squad and it’s not going to be an easy game by any means. Hibs have done very well this season.”