The Tynecastle PA system belted out “Sweet Caroline” at full-time, but it was more “Sweet Christophe” for Hearts supporters.
Christophe Berra’s header crossed the line via a slight touch from Don Cowie to send Hibs out of the Scottish Cup, take Hearts into the next round and end the Easter Road club’s recent derby dominance. Berra’s influence was simply monumental.
Whoever suggested or negotiated this man’s return to Gorgie last summer is responsible for one of the best pieces of Scottish football business in years. Not only did he tee up the winner from Harry Cochrane’s corner, he headed everything which came his way, tackled ferociously, led by example, organised others and was generally an untouchable inspiration.
At one point in the second half, as he met header after header, you wondered if Berra might even consider jumping to meet any low-flying planes destined for Edinburgh airport. He was that colossal. Hibs entered this game unbeaten in nine meetings with their neighbours and finished up out of the cup. Hearts are now undefeated in their past ten matches having stretched their record of clean sheets to seven.
With Berra as captain, 16-year-old Cochrane in midfield and new signings like Steven Naismith and Demetri Mitchell, there is an argument that this is now a very different Hearts side. Ending Hibs’ firm grip of this fixture is indeed a massive step forward.
“We’re rivals, you want to win. There have been games against them in the last couple of years when we were the better team,” said Cowie. “I remember one game at Easter Road like that but we lost. There isn’t much you can do. We’ve had other chances to put it right and didn’t do it. You see a Hearts team now with a lot of experience and good young players. I think we fancy ourselves against anyone. You can see the confidence coming.
“We’re a different team now. I think we’re stronger. When you’re signing players like Naismith and Berra, it gives you real options and solidarity. We can only get better as the season goes on. Younger players are getting more game time and improving. I thought Harry was brilliant yesterday, getting on the ball. He’s getting better and it’s exciting.
“We were in a poor run of form before Craig Levein came in. It’s only natural you go into your shell a bit, take extra touches and maybe take longer. Groans come from fans and results don’t come. We’ve managed to break that. Since the gaffer came in, he’s made us hard to beat. Then players like Naismith add real quality, plus we’ve got Kyle Lafferty to come back [from suspension].”
Cowie admitted being disappointed not to start yesterday but emerged from the substitutes’ bench early in the second half to good effect. “I should have scored with more authority but I managed to get a wee touch on Christophe’s header,” he smiled, mindful that Oli Shaw’s effort for Hibs in last month’s Edinburgh derby crossed that same line – with no goal awarded.
“It’s quite ironic it happened that way. It was an eternity, the ball bobbled along the line, maybe John McGinn couldn’t move his feet. The ball nicked off the post and crossed the line by a couple of inches. I didn’t know if the linesman would give it but he was in the right spot so fair play to him.
“I was disappointed not to play. I made sure I was ready to come on. I managed to come on early in the second half and we had a good spell. We were well on top and, apart from Boyle’s decent effort, we were pretty much in control in the second half.”
Cowie admitted that this is potentially a bigger result psychologically than Hearts’ 4-0 win over Celtic just a few weeks back. “It probably is bigger. No-one expected us to beat Celtic that day. They had an off day and we were very good, but to break this run of results against Hibs is massive for us. We need to use it for the league games against them. It’s not all about just beating Hibs, it’s about us keeping that run going that we were on prior to the break. We’ve done that.”
Levein fielded a three-man central defence of John Souttar, Aaron Hughes and Berra in a change from recent selections. He also handed new loan signings Mitchell and Naismith high-profile debuts. His Hibs counterpart Neil Lennon began with four at the back. However, he left new recruits Scott Bain, Jamie Maclaren and Faycal Rherras on the bench whilst seeking to help the Easter Road club knock Hearts out of the Scottish Cup for the third successive year.
Snow swirled around Tynecastle Park before kick-off but the chill in the air was tempered by a typically fiery derby atmosphere. Naismith’s arrival in particular had excited the Hearts support, and he came within inches of a debut goal in the fourth minute. A weighted through pass by David Milinkovic found the Norwich City forward, who took a touch past the emerging Ofir Marciano but rolled his finish narrowly wide from 18 yards.
The next clear opening came at the opposite end on 23 minutes and should have resulted in a breakthrough. Shaw’s right-sided cross was flicked on by Vykintas Slivka to Martin Boyle at the back post. With the goal gaping, his decision to use his right foot instead of left cost Hibs the first goal as his first-time finish bounced wide.
The sodden and slippy surface ensured quality, free-flowing passing moves were at a premium. Both teams enjoyed some neat interchanges but before long a sliding challenge would interrupt the momentum. Hearts opened the Hibs defence again on 33 minutes when Milinkovic lofted the ball through to Esmael Goncalves. The Portuguese outmuscled Darren McGregor amid shouts of handball against the visiting centre-back, but his shot was smothered by Marciano.
Play swung to the other end again towards the interval and Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin did well to hold an attempt by Boyle from outside the penalty area. It was fast-paced and entertaining fare despite not being overloaded with panache. Perhaps everything the Edinburgh derby is known for.
The second period followed the same vein. Mitchell’s volley from Goncalves’ clipped cross was netbound until Marciano sprung to his right to produce a stunning one-handed save. The Israeli was grateful to see Berra’s driven shot coming at him for a more straightforward catch moments later following a Hearts free-kick.
Hearts were more in the ascendancy and utilised Mitchell’s attacking instincts to good effect down the left. The Manchester United player found plenty space to cross several tantalising balls into the visitors’ penalty area.
Hibs came to life ten minutes from time and Boyle, once again, should have scored. McGinn’s free-kick landed with the unmarked winger at the back post for a blistering volley which McLaughlin pushed over his crossbar.
Hearts punished their rivals seconds later. Cochrane’s corner was met by Berra’s downward header and a deft touch by Cowie helped the ball creep over the goal line before Hibs could clear. Berra claimed the goal as the home support let out an almighty roar in celebration, but replays confirmed Cowie was the last home player to touch it.
A late skirmish involving Levein and Boyle in the technical area was nothing more than handbags as tension increased. There was plenty pent-up frustration released when the final whistle sounded. Hearts’ reward for prevailing in a competitive and unforgiving game is a home tie against Albion Rovers or St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup fifth round.
It also keep alive Cowie’s hopes of earning a first major Scottish football honour. He won the Championship title in England but his only medal in his homeland is the Challenge Cup with Ross County.
“We’re in the next round and that’s where we need to be. A club this size needs to start challenging,” stressed Cowie. “We haven’t done it enough recently so that’s the plan. We’re still in the cup and we probably had the most difficult draw out of anyone at this stage but you just have to deal with it. We did that and we have another home draw, which is important.
“I’m getting to the latter stages of my career and I want to finish with a medal. There would be nothing sweeter than getting a Scottish Cup one. That was one of the reasons for me coming to the club - to start challenging. I wanted to come here to win something.”