Lack of guile leaves Hearts unable to halt Hibs’ derby run

Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty can't hide his frustration. Pic: SNS
Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty can't hide his frustration. Pic: SNS
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Thirteen years to the day since Craig Levein last managed Hearts in an Edinburgh derby, he was left to lament the early concession which saw him defeated on his return to Easter Road. Simon Murray’s third-minute goal decided a ferociously competitive game, stretching Hibs’ unbeaten run against Hearts to eight matches

Levein hasn’t been involved in this fixture since October 24, 2004, when Patrick Kisnorbo and Joe Hamill scored to give Hearts a 2-1 win over Hibs at Tynecastle. Handed the task of reviving his club after Ian Cathro’s departure, he at least ensured they had more desire than their previous visit to Leith – last season’s insipid Scottish Cup replay defeat.

Referee Andrew Dallas has a strong word with Hearts kid Harry Cochrane

Referee Andrew Dallas has a strong word with Hearts kid Harry Cochrane

However, despite mounting second-half pressure, those in maroon couldn’t cancel out Murray’s strike. Hibs controlled the first 45 minutes and should have been further ahead. Hearts improved in the second half, but lacked an extra touch of guile to open up the Hibs backline.

Levein and the Hearts support would have noted the hunger and competitive edge within their side, but that was scant consolation at full-time.

Not for three years had these two Capital factions encountered each other on league duty, so there was plenty lost time to make up for. Easter Road was packed to capacity on a mild autumnal evening in Leith, and the boisterous crowd produced a crackling atmosphere pre-match.

Hearts, of course, entered this fixture without a victory in any of the previous seven derbies against their greatest rivals. Levein hadn’t presided over any of that sequence but, having returned to the dugout, nor was it something he intended to tolerate any longer. He and the visitors endured the worst possible start, however.

Euan Henderson, 17, was handed his first Hearts start

Euan Henderson, 17, was handed his first Hearts start

A lively-looking Hibs forward line were instantly keen to run in behind their opponents and that brought them an opening goal inside three minutes. Centre-forward Murray collected the ball on the left side of the Hearts penalty box and nutmegged John Souttar to drive a powerful finish high beyond goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.

Levein’s decision to pitch two teenagers – Jamie Brandon, 19, and 17-year-old Euan Henderson – into the derby cauldron was brave. Hibs began playing balls in behind Brandon at left-back, hoping to utilise the pace of winger Martin Boyle. The youngster faced a difficult challenge against an energetic opponent who seized every opportunity to attack. Brandon Barker on Hibs’ left did likewise and caused Michael Smith a fair degree of trouble.

Neil Lennon’s team were using width intelligently and were also passing the ball better than their guests. Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn were the architects of much of the flowing movement. Lewis Stevenson and Marvin Bartley both had further attempts at goal, and Hearts needed a sustained period in possession as the half-hour mark approached.

They eventually steadied themselves and gained a foothold in proceedings. A glimpse at goal arrived for striker Kyle Lafferty on 34 minutes. He sprinted on to Smith’s long ball to loft his finish narrowly over Ofir Marciano’s crossbar. Moments later, Lafferty laid Brandon’s cross back into Walker’s path, but Marciano gathered his 20-yard shot.

Hearts would have been feeling slightly more comfortable nearing half-time, but they had a serious let-off on 42 minutes. McGeouch cleverly evaded Rafal Grzelak’s sliding challenge in midfield to clip a pass forward for the advancing Boyle. McLaughlin charged out to smother the shot near the penalty spot and the rebound was arced into the away fans by Steven Whittaker, who ought to have hit the target with the keeper grounded.

The ineffective Grzelak was substituted at half-time as Levein introduced another teenager. This time it was 16-year-old Harry Cochrane in a like-for-like midfield change. Again Hibs’ started intensely and it took a goal-saving challenge by the Hearts captain Christophe Berra to prevent them doubling their advantage. John McGinn scampered forward in possession to deliver a low left-footed cross which Murray was waiting to convert at the back post. He would claimed a straightforward second goal had Berra not slid in to clear at the last second.

Another block, this time by Connor Randall, thwarted Whittaker from a corner. Levein had to change and decided to introduce a more attacking threat in Esmael Goncalves. It led to Hearts’ best spell of the match as they went on the offensive while Levein and his assistant Austin MacPhee stood deep in conversation in the technical area. In an attempt to force the issue with 18 minutes remaining, Cole Stockton was introduced for Henderson and Levein’s final roll of the dice.

One attack ended with Marciano diving to his left to collect Berra’s header. Hearts were now in the ascendancy with the clock beginning to tick ever louder in their ears. Stockton hit a volley at the back post which ricocheted into Goncalves’ path, but again his attempt was blocked. Almost 4000 fans in the away end were beginning to wonder if an equaliser would come. Meanwhile, Hibs’ pace on the break was an inherent problem.

Barker raced away on a counter-attack to supply McGinn with a pass. The Scotland midfielder steadied himself for a netbound shot which McLaughlin pushed away low to his left. It was the last serious effort on goal in a game that ended with Hibs celebrating an eighth game without defeat against their rivals.