Regaining the upper hand in Edinburgh is paramount in the eyes of every Hearts supporter. Sitting beneath Hibs in the league and without a victory over their city rivals in the last seven derbies is never going to sit easily with those who follow the Tynecastle side.
The air of superiority over their city rivals which allowed them to embark on long unbeaten runs and inflict some significant damage on the Easter Road side in the past has, temporarily at least, been relinquished by Hearts in recent times. Instead, it is Hibs who, in the tweeted words of midfielder Marvin Bartley, currently proclaim to “run this city”.
Over the next six days, Hearts have a couple of chances to set about addressing this situation. While manager Craig Levein, understandably, insists publicly that their present focus is solely on trying to defeat St Johnstone on Saturday, the fact hasn’t been missed by supporters that a win over the stuttering Perth side at BT Murrayfield will ensure Hearts make the short trip to Easter Road on Tuesday ahead of their city rivals for the first time this season.
“It’s a real carrot for Hearts to know that if they beat St Johnstone they’ll be above Hibs going into the derby,” former Hearts player Paul Ritchie told the Evening News. “That would give you an extra cushion knowing that if you don’t lose on Tuesday, you’d still be above Hibs. Hearts supporters always put a high demand on the club, and rightly so, but, with the start to the season we’ve had, I think most people would have settled for going into the first derby ahead of Hibs.
“The Hibs game shouldn’t be a distraction for the players on Saturday. These boys are paid to play one game at a time and they need to win their home games. It will be a strange and possibly subdued atmosphere on Saturday because Murrayfield won’t be anywhere near full but, although it’s not at Tynecastle, Hearts are playing a home game against a side they’re on a par with in the league. It’s a good game to have ahead of the derby and it’s a good chance to make it back-to-back wins. We got a good win at Ross County and now we’re at home to St Johnstone. Those are two games you’d be looking to take six points from. If we can do that, it would set us up very nicely for Tuesday.”
Hearts haven’t won a derby since Sam Nicholson and Prince Buaben struck in a 2-1 victory at Tynecastle more than three years ago. In the intervening period, Hibs have won three of the seven meetings, including Scottish Cup fourth-round replays at Easter Road in each of the previous two seasons. Ritchie, a Hearts supporter, admits a victory over their city rivals is already frustratingly overdue.
“It’s been different in the last few years because Hibs have had the upper hand, and we’re not used to that,” said the 1998 Scottish Cup-winning defender. “We all want to see our team win derbies, but we’ve lost some big cup ties to them and obviously they beat us on their way to winning the Scottish Cup, so it’s been difficult for the Hearts supporters over the last few years. The derby bragging rights are great when they’re going your way, but it’s tough to take when they’re not. For all Hearts supporters, it has to change quickly.”
Ritchie is confident that the return of Levein, his old team-mate and fellow Fifer, as manager will ensure Hearts are better equipped to triumph on enemy territory after losing on their last three visits to Easter Road. “Nobody likes to get beat, but the way Hearts have lost the derbies in recent years has been unacceptable,” said the 42-year-old former Scotland defender.
“With Craig in charge, though, I think we will see a Hearts team that goes out there and plays for the jersey. It’ll be very difficult because Hibs are a good team, but with the quality we’ve got, there’s no reason we can’t go there and get a victory.
“It would be naive to think we’re going to go down there and outplay this Hibs team at Easter Road but Craig’s a very clever man and he’ll have a game plan and make sure all the players have every bit of information they need. After that it’ll be up to the players to follow it through. Craig’s not renowned for free-flowing football but he’s very methodical and sets his teams up to be difficult to beat but also to be strong enough to win games. With players like Kyle Lafferty, Jamie Walker and Esmael Goncalves, I think we’ve got the quality required to go there and take the game to Hibs. I don’t think we’ll go gung-ho – we’ll be disciplined and wait for our chances. It’s imperative that we don’t get beat.”
If Hearts were to beat Saints and Hibs, they would leapfrog both teams in the top half of the Premiership and move five points ahead of their city rivals. Ritchie senses a chance for the Tynecastle side, who have had to play eight of their opening nine Premiership games so far away from home, to ignite their season.
“It’s been a bit of a subdued start to the season for Hearts because they’ve not been able to play at Tynecastle,” he said.
“They’ve managed to scrape a few results but there’s still plenty room for improvement. If we could go to Easter Road and win it could really kick-start our season because after that we’ve got the Rangers game, then a major run of games at Tynecastle.
“With Craig back at the wheel, things should start to change for the better. When you look at the stadium, the history of the club, the fanbase and the training facilities, we are the third biggest club in Scotland, but we need to get back up there in terms of results. Winning the derby would be a great place to start.”
Ritchie represented Hearts at a time when they possessed a derby aura. He broke into the first team under Jim Jefferies in 1995, a year after Hibs had ended the Tynecastle side’s remarkable 22-game unbeaten run against their city rivals, and suffered only two defeats in the fixture before leaving for Bolton Wanderers at the start of 2000. He is eager to see an air of bullishness return to the west side of Edinburgh.
“When I played for Hearts, I think there was a confidence about the club when it came to the derby,” said Ritchie. “Even before I came through, when we had the likes of John Robertson, Alan McLaren, Craig Levein, Gary Mackay and John Colquhoun, Hearts had the upper hand, and that continued for years.
“Yes, we lost one or two big games to Hibs and they did hurt, but, on the whole, we knew that we had players in the team who could step up in those games, and we usually did.
“It becomes a mental thing with the derbies, and we had a confidence about us when it came to playing Hibs. Unfortunately, that’s turned a little bit in recent years, but there’s no reason it can’t turn back to where it was for Hearts.”