The last time Alim Ozturk kicked a ball for Hearts, they were 2-0 up on Hibs and seemingly coasting towards the Scottish Cup quarter-finals.
In one of the most pivotal moments of the fifth-round tie, the captain limped off early in the second half of the first game between the sides at Tynecastle a week past Sunday and left a patched-up defence to try and keep Hibs at bay for the last 40 minutes or so. They were unable to do so, with Alan Stubbs’ side roaring back to salvage a 2-2 draw before winning Tuesday’s replay 1-0.
Ozturk was suspended for the trip to Easter Road and had to watch helplessly from the main stand as jubilant Hibs fans partied all around him.
“When they scored and I saw the reaction of their fans I wanted to be on the pitch,” said the Turkish centre-back. “It was very hard for me.”
None of this grim situation for Hearts would have come to pass if they had been able to keep the back door bolted towards the end of the first game. “We’re disappointed because we were 2-0 up with only ten minutes to play in the first game and in that situation you must win and go through,” he said. “But that’s the cup – and a derby too. It was a good lesson for us but we’ll bounce back – we have to.”
Ozturk, who is due to return from injury and suspension for today’s trip to Dundee United, admits to being bewildered by the level of criticism that has come the way of his team-mates and head coach Robbie Neilson since Tuesday’s setback.
The 23-year-old, who scored a memorable equaliser at Easter Road last season, is well aware that the derby is a particularly important fixture in the eyes of the supporters, but he doesn’t believe the fact Hearts have now gone five games without beating an upwardly-mobile Hibs side represents a major issue when set against their overall progress since emerging from administration almost two years ago.
“The derby is one of the biggest games here, even if there is a league between us,” he said. “Our season is not just about the derby – you have to win your other games as well. If we finish second I don’t think anyone will be talking about the derbies.
“Of course, when you lose to your rivals the fans will be disappointed but when you see what the manager has done here in the last two years, he has done really well. We’re third in the league and doing well for a team that has just been promoted. I think we are doing really well, so I don’t understand the criticism.
“We have been doing well and maybe there’s a thought that because they are in the Championship we have to beat them. I understand that the fans expect us to win against them but it was an away game. A derby is always difficult and even if they are Championship and we are Premiership there’s no difference in the atmosphere. Of course everyone was disappointed on Tuesday, but we have to keep going.”
Some of the criticism levelled at Neilson by supporters is that Hearts were too negative in the second half of the first game against Hibs and also in the opening minutes of the replay. Ozturk was dismissive of the suggestion that the head coach asked for a cautious approach and explained that it is simply impossible for a team to be able to play on the front foot all the time, particularly against a side like Hibs who are accustomed to controlling possession for long periods.
“Managers never tell you to sit back,” said Ozturk.
“Sometimes you have to feel how the game goes. In the first game, it was just how the game went. After the first half, 2-0 up, the gaffer said to us to keep pressing them and keep putting pressure on them. But in the second half, I don’t know why, maybe because of the feeling of the guys, they sat too deep and Hibs controlled the game and scored twice.
“If we had won that game, no-one would be speaking like this but in the cup it can always go different ways. Even in the replay we still created enough chances to score – we were a bit unlucky in the second half.
“It’s in the past now and we’re looking forward to Dundee United. The focus is on the league – that’s the most important thing.
“We have a big chance now to finish in the top three and we will do everything we can to stay there, or maybe go even higher.