IT was only a few months ago that demoralised Hearts fans were desperate for this testing season to end.
Yet 3600 delirious Jambos partied in Easter Road’s South Stand for more than 15 minutes after their team’s hard-fought victory over Hibs had concluded.
“The season is ending too soon for us,” said Callum Paterson after he had headed the first-half double that ensured Hearts a fourth Edinburgh derby win in the one season for the first time since 1903-04.
Hearts are riding the crest of a wave, this triumph made it three league victories in a row for the first time since Jim Jefferies’ side won six on the spin in winter 2010. They have now taken 13 points from a possible 15, a run which began with a 2-0 win over their floundering city rivals four weeks previously. No team in the country has taken as many points as Gary Locke’s side have accumulated over the past five games.
After a harsh autumn and winter , this young Hearts side is positively flourishing in the spring. It says much about the mood among everyone at Hearts right now that the confirmation of their relegation amid this rousing run has barely diminished the sense of optimism which has been cranked up further by the news that they are on the brink of exiting administration.
At full-time, having withstood a late and dangerous onslaught from Hibs, the sweat-soaked but jubilant Hearts players and management gathered in front of their merry-making supporters for a well-earned party as the home end emptied. Players ripped off their shirts and tossed them into the crowd.
Given all they have had to contend with, it’s a feat in itself that Hearts even won one of the five derbies this season.
A further feather in the cap of this young Hearts team – there was only one outfield player over 22 wearing maroon – is that they would have the same number of points as Hibs if it wasn’t for the 15-point deduction they incurred at the start of the season for being in administration.
Hibs are a fragile team right now, reminiscent to what Hearts were when they could hardly buy a win back in those difficult autumn days and this was a chance for the Jam Tarts to increase the fear of their rivals of being sucked into a relegation play-off.
While Terry Butcher’s team were rushed into panicked and aimless clearances, their visitors, with Scott Robinson particularly prominent, stroked the ball about with assurance in the early exchanges , albeit unable to get their central striker, Dale Carrick, into the game. That is no slight on the selfless little hitman, who ran himself into the ground for the good of the team.
However, while Carrick was the hero the last time the teams locked horns, this time the glory went to Paterson, a teenager who knows all about being asked to lead the Hearts attack. Having been moved to right-back since the emergence of Carrick, Paterson’s chances of bulging the net again this season looked to have diminished. Not so. After a tight opening half hour in which Hibs had eased their way into the game without ever really looking likely to score, Hearts, who had hitherto failed to carve out a clear opening, took the lead in 37 minutes. Billy King, starting his first derby match, swung over a corner and Paterson rose to power down a header which appeared to find the net in slow motion after bouncing up and eluding a few bodies on its way in.
The Hearts players ran to the dugout and celebrated en masse while Locke pumped his fists towards the away end.
And, just four minutes later, the Jambos were in dreamland. After a free-kick was softly awarded against Hibs left-back Ryan McGivern just a few yards from the corner flag, Kevin McHattie, another impressive performer in maroon, curled in a cross which was firmly headed home by Paterson. Remarkably for the 19-year-old, who has never been considered an out and out striker, this was his ninth goal of the campaign.
After the break Hibs, driven by a sense of urgency, seemed to find an extra level of intensity as they chased salvation. When the determined Jordon Forster headed one back for Hibs midway through the half, Hearts were faced with a real test of character. They were fortunate as Hibs striker James Collins fluffed a close-range chance but they generally kept Hibs at bay with Dylan McGowan, who has benefited from being moved to right-back to his preferred position of centre-half, particulalry assured and dominant.
Indeed, it was a magnificently-weighted pass from the young Australian which sent Ryan Stevenson scampering clear down the left channel in the last minute. The 29-year-old cut in and looked all set to put the seal on the victory, but his angled dink over Ben Williams drifted just agonisingly past the far post.
Hibs: Williams, Maybury, McGivern, Forster, Nelson, Robertson (Watmore 66), Thompson, Harris, Craig, Stanton, Cummings (Collins 72). Subs not used: Murdoch, Boateng, L Stevenson, Tudur, Jones, Handling.
Hearts: MacDonald, Paterson, McHattie, McGowan, Wilson, Robinson, Holt, Nicholson (Smith 57), R Stevenson, King (Walker 81), Carrick (McKay 88). Subs not used: Ridgers, McCallum, Oliver, McGhee.
Ref: B Madden.