THIS unbeaten Hearts run owes much to two men. But for the raking interventions of Alim Ozturk and Jamie Walker, the Tynecastle club may well have lost twice to Hibs already this season.
That they haven’t is down to a couple of splendid goals by the aforementioned players, plus the sheer resilience of their team-mates.
Saturday’s New Year Edinburgh derby brought the best Hibs performance at Tynecastle for many a year. The visitors were inventive, positive, aggressive, confident and attack-minded. In midfielder Scott Allan they had arguably the best player on the pitch. Even at 1-1 in the second half, with Hearts on top, their substitutions were designed to facilitate a win in Gorgie for only the second time since May 2009. It didn’t happen.
Hearts’ doggedness and spirit kicked in, they refused to be beaten and earned a draw to remain 19 points ahead of their city neighbours. If another side are to win the Scottish Championship, they have a fair distance to go to match the fighting qualities of Robbie Neilson’s team. The derby served as a reminder that this league is not yet over, but also that Hearts remain the most difficult team to beat within it.
Jason Cummings evaded Ozturk to open the scoring and then headed Lewis Stevenson’s cross narrowly wide when given the chance to double Hibs’ advantage. That preceded Walker’s exquisite equaliser from around 22 yards, which soared high into Mark Oxley’s net five minutes before half-time. Both scorers were booked for goading opposition fans during their celebrations but, although this derby was frenetic and competitive, it never really looked like getting out of control.
The first half belonged to Hibs, the second was edged by Hearts, with penalty claims in both boxes during an open and entertaining encounter. Hearts were not unsatisfied with their point. Even though Rangers won at the weekend, they remain 13 points ahead at the top of the Scottish Championship. Hibs’ performance underlined what many Tynecastle players have been saying for weeks – that there is too much football still to be played for talk of a title triumph.
“Until it’s mathematically impossible for anyone to catch us, we’ll keep battling every week,” said goalkeeper Neil Alexander. “If we drop a couple of points here and there, it gives other teams around us a bit of momentum and confidence. We can’t let that happen. We can make this league quite comfortable and enjoyable until the end of the season, or we can make it uneasy and panicky for the fans as well as the players.
“We want to keep doing well, taking it game by game, and if we keep getting points then hopefully we’ll win the league sooner rather than later. We’re not looking that far ahead. It’s one game at a time.”
Alexander concurred with the general notion that the derby, broadcast live on BT Sport, showcased the Scottish game well to the rest of Britain. “I think it was fantastic. Both teams did the league and the city proud,” he continued. “It was a really good game; end to end, both teams had chances. The pitch made it difficult to pass the ball and get our fluency going. Both teams gave 100 per cent and the fans appreciated that. The game could’ve gone either way and I thought it was a really good advert for the Championship.” While Alan Stubbs felt Hibs’ performance merited victory, Neilson, pictured, was philosophical. His team attacked far more after the break than before it. They also required to defend in numbers whenever their guests broke with intent. Stubbs argued that Danny Handling deserved a penalty for a second-half collision with Miguel Pallardo, when he appeared to be impeded as a cross ball arrived inside the box. Neilson introduced two substitutes in the final few minutes and, by that stage, was content to accept a draw.
“I thought it was a great point in the end,” he explained. “It keeps our unbeaten run going, we’re up to 19 games now, and this was a difficult game. Hibs had a lot of energy about them. They’ve been on a good run of form and they wanted to claw us back.
“We want to win every game we play but we’re happy with this point. In the first half, the first 25 minutes or so, the boys were nervous and it showed. Their passing wasn’t on point. It’s the easiest thing in the world to just start booting it up and out the park, but when you try to play a passing game, you’ll make mistakes, we accept that. It gives us something to work on.”
While the Hibs forward line contained plenty options for link-up play between Cummings and Dominique Malonga, Hearts suffered slightly in that area. James Keatings was alone up front for much of the afternoon. Walker tried admirably to offer support along with Sam Nicholson, but a partner for Keatings would have made such a difference.
Neilson wasn’t getting overly stressed about the situation. “It’s not a case of points dropped at all. We haven’t lost yet this season and we have a good lead at the top of the table. We dropped points at Dumbarton earlier in the season, and we’re keen to right that wrong next weekend.”
Indeed, Dumbarton and Hibs are the only two teams to take league points from Hearts this season. The Easter Road club denied their rivals another two on Saturday, offering further evidence of the momentum being built under Stubbs. Yet still no-one can muster enough to inflict that first defeat.