A BAYING mob gathered outside Easter Road last night demanding the sacking of Hibs manager Pat Fenlon. Yet the preceding 90 minutes which caused their fury to spill over was shaped by the decisions of the Irishman’s opposite number.
This was a huge occasion for Gary Locke. He has endured his own criticism of late – although nowhere near the level aimed at Fenlon last night – and badly needed to halt Hearts’ malaise after six defeats in eight games. His choices were inspired and pivotal to the final outcome as the overwhelming underdogs scrapped their way to a 1-0 win and a place in the League Cup semi-finals.
Firstly, allowing the public perception to grow that Ryan Stevenson had no chance of playing gave Locke the chance to spring a surprise. Stevenson played the full 90 minutes despite suffering a knee injury at Kilmarnock last weekend which “looked like a bad one”, according to his manager.
He scored the decisive goal in this ultra-competitive cup tie with a wonderful spin and powerful 20-yard shot on 34 minutes. He then ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the elated travelling support. Any knee pain was incidental. Stevenson’s adrenalin negated it anyway.
Locke’s other crucial decision came just ten minutes into the match. Hibs were dominating midfield and pouring forward, with both teams having deployed 4-4-2 formations. Locke reverted to a 4-2-3-1, pushing Stevenson from wide left to centre-forward and pulling Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker out to the right and left flanks respectively. Gradually, Hearts stemmed Hibs’ flow and got themselves into the game. Their five men in midfield tackled aggressively, pressed relentlessly and provided a solid foundation for Stevenson to thrive.
“It was a great win and I’m delighted,” said Locke, pictured below. “Special mention goes to our goalkeeper because Hibs put us under great pressure in the first 20 minutes and he made three outstanding saves – as he has done all season.
“We just weren’t getting hold of the ball. When we did get it, we just kept giving it away. After that I made a wee change and put Ryan up top and once we got the goal I thought we played really well. I felt, with Ryan’s physical power up there, Callum on the right and Jamie Walker on the left, we caused Hibs a few problems.
“I didn’t think Ryan was going to be fit myself. He’s a big player for Heart of Midlothian, he’s infectious in the dressing-room and somebody I was delighted to keep in the summer. I’m absolutely over the moon for him because he’s worked really hard on his fitness to get back and his finish was out of this world.”
Stevenson’s knee was heavily strapped last night given he has already missed six weeks of this season because of a torn medial ligament. “We’ll maybe strap it every week if he’s going to knock goals in like that,” joked Locke. “He’s that type of boy, he just wants to play. He’s come back from his injury a lot sooner than many players would have. That shows you his character.”
There were many other gutsy displays in maroon. Danny Wilson and Dylan McGowan in central defence, 17-year-old Jordan McGhee at right-back and Jamie Hamill in midfield all excelled.
No-one eclipsed goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, though. Inside the first 20 minutes, he seemed like a one-man repellant to Hibs. He saved a Scott Robertson effort, tipped a swerving drive from the same player on to the crossbar, and pushed a dangerous James Collins drive for a corner.
“We got some breaks because our goalkeeper has made some brilliant saves to keep us in it early doors. We haven’t had a lot of luck so, hopefully, that’s a wee sign that things are maybe turning for us,” said Locke.
“I think it is one of the best derby results ever considering the age of our squad. It’s a fantastic result for us. It was a great performance, apart from the first 15 minutes. We’ve got to start taking that type of performance into our league games.
“We have young lads and we were on a bad run. Hopefully this win has stopped that and we can go from strength to strength. I’m not thinking about winning a trophy. This was just about getting to the semi-finals and we’ve done that against our biggest rivals. It’s great for everyone connected with the club. You see the support backing us in huge numbers again and I’m delighted for them because it has been a difficult few weeks.”
Hibs were reduced to ten men late in the match when their captain, James McPake, received a straight red card for a reckless tackle on Paterson. MacDonald, by then, had produced another critical save when faced one-on-one by Liam Craig.
Locke was asked after the final whistle if this act of defiance was better than the 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs last year. His club are in administration and operating with a threadbare squad. “I don’t think anything will ever beat that day. That was a special day for anyone connected with Hearts,” he replied.
“It’s satisfying that we’re through to the next round. For me, it was just about stopping the bad run. Players were giving everything and we weren’t getting the breaks. I’m delighted we’ve stopped that run, now we want to go on a better one.”