Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hibs players in the Tynecastle tunnel on Sunday, Neil Alexander will feel he is entering the last chance saloon. This will be the Hearts goalkeeper’s fourth Edinburgh derby and he has yet to win – a statistic he is eager to rectify before it’s too late.
Approaching 38, Alexander is enjoying a successful twilight to his career with the club he supported as a child. He will eventually migrate into a full-time coaching role at Riccarton but is craving a derby win before his playing days end.
A fractured cheekbone precluded him from Hearts’ 2-1 win over Hibs early last season, when Jack Hamilton deputised. Alexander played in two subsequent draws and a defeat against the Easter Road club and worried his chance of a derby win had gone when Hearts earned promotion to the Premiership and Hibs didn’t.
The clubs’ pairing in the fifth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup gives him another chance. He intends playing on next season but knows there is again no guarantee Hibs will secure promotion and return to the top flight. For Alexander, it’s all or nothing this weekend.
“Derbies are always special and it’s always nice to play in them but I’ve not won one yet,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve had two draws and a defeat so it would be nice to change that record. It would be good to say I’ve played in a winning Hearts team in a derby. I want to say when I retire that I’ve done that, but winning the game for the club and the fans is the main priority. It’s not about me.
“You’ve got to look at it that, potentially, it might be my last derby. That makes it more special for me. I’ll look forward to the game more and I’m more determined to come out of it a winner. I went into the game at Easter Road at the end of last season thinking it could potentially be my last derby. Now I’ve got another chance so I want to right a wrong and taste the feeling of winning a derby.”
If he succeeds, it may prove rather awkward at the next family gathering. Alexander’s father and uncles all support Hibs. “There’s always been a rivalry in the family, which makes it interesting come derby day,” he smiled. “It’s all a good laugh and good family fun. There’s never any bad feeling or anything. My dad’s a Hibs fan and my uncles are Hibs fans. They’ll be watching but they want me to do well as well, so they can’t really lose in a sense.”
The goalkeeper is entitled to feel confident about his and Hearts’ prospects. His club are third in the Ladbrokes Premiership despite being the league’s newly-promoted team and are serious contenders to bag one of Scotland’s European places. Also, Alexander hasn’t lost a goal in three games against Motherwell, Aberdeen and Hamilton Academical.
Defensive changes are being forced upon his manager, Robbie Neilson, though. Igor Rossi’s suspension leaves a void at left-back which either Jordan McGhee or Juwon Oshaniwa will fill. McGhee is the more likely candidate.
“We have a suspension so we have to change the back four again. We’re fully confident in the boys who will come in. They will do a good job and continue this run of clean sheets. We know we have good strength in depth here. Sunday is a big game for us, Tynecastle will be packed and it will be a special game. As a professional footballer, these are the games you look forward to. It should be a cracker.
“Since the manager changed the back four, with Igor in at left-back and Alim back in the middle, we’ve looked really solid. Three clean sheets in a row, we’re delighted with that. We’ve been working hard on the training pitch and it’s nice that it’s paying off on matchdays.”
Cup ties possess that unpredictibality, however. Especially cup ties doubling as derbies. “You know the consequences of getting knocked out of the cup. We want to go as far as we can in this tournament and this is a good chance for us,” stressed Alexander. “Hibs are a really good team who are on a good run at the minute. We have to be at our best in every department to progress.
“We’re under no illusions. Just because we’re the Premiership team means nothing. This is a one-off game, it’s a derby, so who wins is whoever wants it more on the day. It’ll be a battle and a proper cup tie. The cup competitions in the last couple of years have been quite tough for Hearts because of the draws we’ve had. This is another hard one. We’ll treat Sunday the same as any other game.”
Hibs cross the city on the crest of their own wave, which hasn’t gone unnoticed in the west of Edinburgh. They have lost only once in all competitions - to Rangers - since August 23 last year. That 24-match run has given them a fighting chance of beating the Ibrox club to automatic promotion, plus earned them the right to a crack at Hearts in the cup.
“I’m very impressed with what Alan Stubbs has done,” said Alexander of the Hibs head coach. “I think he’s a fantastic manager, he’s brought in a lot of really good players and they’ve gelled quickly. After a bit of slow start, they’ve done really well to catch Rangers, put pressure on them and make it a fight for the title. Everyone thought Rangers would walk away with it but Hibs have made a challenge.
“It’s fantastic for the Championship and great for Edinburgh that both the maroon and the green halves of the city are doing well in their respective leagues. We know Hibs are a good team so we’re not going to take this game lightly.”