Craig Wighton’s derby history guarantees he will handle the occasion if thrust into tonight’s Hearts-Hibs cauldron.
Injuries to Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith leave Steven MacLean and Wighton as the only available forwards at Tynecastle Park. Sean Clare and Danny Amankwaa could fill in up front but are essentially wingers. It is an exasperating situation for manager Craig Levein, who may now turn to Wighton to lead his attack this evening.
A 90th-minute winner against United on May 2, 2016, earned this childhood Dundee fan an everlasting place in Dens Park folklore. Sending your city rivals down in such a dramatic manner truly is fairytale stuff. More importantly, that goal armed young Wighton with vital self-belief that he can succeed in any powderkeg fixture.
“That Dundee derby goal was probably the most memorable moment of my career so far,” said the 21-year-old. “Growing up a Dundee fan, it meant a lot to me and my family. Because I am from Dundee, a lot went on. A few of my friends are Dundee United fans so it was a bit weird like that. It’s never nice to see anyone go down, with folk losing their jobs and stuff, but it was a big moment for me and my family.
“It still gets mentioned to me a lot, which is a nice thing and I hope that I can do the same on Wednesday. It was an important experience for me, too. There was a lot riding on that game, with United’s situation, and it was a big-pressure game, but I feel like I am used to these games now and I’m raring to be involved in another. Even just with the build-up and excitement, I can’t wait for the game now.”
Levein will have no concern over pitching in a player he paid an undisclosed fee to sign in August. The manager also needs fresh legs after last Tuesday’s league win at Dundee and Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic.
“Derbies are the games that will give you the headlines if you can get a goal and we are all desperate to do that and make the supporters happy again after the weekend,” said Wighton, who was cup-tied at the weekend. He also acknowledged that Hearts-Hibs is a notch up in profile and intensity compared to Dundee versus United.
“Those games are huge occasions but the Edinburgh derby is so much bigger. It’s a bigger city, with a lot more fans and we are just raring to go,” he said.
“There will be a bit more pressure on us after the weekend. People might be thinking we might not handle it due to the injuries and stuff, but we have a good squad here and we are confident we can get three points.”
Injuries have almost decimated Hearts’ forward line whilst also claiming captain Chrisophe Berra and his central defensive partner John Souttar. Those two are out until next year along with Ikpeazu, while Naismith will miss up to eight weeks. Those in reserve must now take centre stage this evening.
“The other forwards like me and Danny will need to step up. We don’t have a choice,” said Wighton. “It’s a big blow for us because Naisy has been brilliant this season and has scored a lot of goals. Now it’s up to the other players to chip in and start scoring.
“Even when boys like that are injured, they are still here every day and at every game – helping people and speaking to us. Even although they are injured, they still have a lot to offer to the team. Whether Christophe or Steven – we have a lot of injuries now – they are all still in the group and looking to help each other.
“It’s been unlucky. There probably haven’t been any clubs that have had so many disappointing injuries this season, but we are still top of the league and have a brilliant game tonight to bounce back. If we keep winning games then no-one will be talking about the injuries. It’s up to us to do that.”
Wighton is keen to embrace the situation he finds himself in. “It doesn’t matter who I have replaced in the team, I want to go out there and do the best I can for the team. I don’t think there is added pressure on anyone.
“It is just about going out there and doing the best you can. Everyone wants to be playing games and, although it is unfortunate boys are injured, it is a chance for the guys in the squad who have perhaps not played as much to step up and show what they can do.”
He hasn’t been in Gorgie long but is already acutely aware of the importance Hearts place on beating Hibs. “The game at the weekend was big, but if you ask most fans then they would say the derby is the one they want to win,” added Wighton. “It is a great occasion for everyone and I know what it means to anyone close to this club; the fans especially. We’ll go out looking to put on a performance and fight for everything.”
Wighton’s learning curve increased sharply following the move to Tynecastle. He intends to use tricks gleaned from Naismith to outwit the Hibs defence. “I’ve learned wee things from Steven Naismith – just the dirty side of the game like winning free-kicks, getting your body in the way and making ground up for the team.
“His movement and cleverness is brilliant. Sometimes he will just stand in a position knowing that the ball will come, rather than just running about for the sake of it. These are the little touches of quality that you don’t think about. He’s been doing that for years and I want to take all of that on board.”