Toby Sibbick explains how Daniel Stendel's vision gives Hearts another key option for Hibs showdowns
When Beni Baningime joined Cammy Devlin on the treatment table, robbing Hearts of their first-choice central-midfield pairing, a question immediately rose of who would join reliable reserve Peter Haring in the foundational role.
Robbie Neilson is looking to construct the ideal team ahead of a crucial fortnight. The head coach is seeking to defeat Hibs in what could easily be the last league derby of the campaign this Saturday, as the visitors realistically need a win to secure a top-six place, and the Scottish Cup semi-final seven days later.
Baningime is out until the end of the year and, although Neilson will give Devlin every chance to recover from a hamstring problem in time for the Hampden showdown, Neilson will still be looking for a formidable plan B. Andy Halliday initially moved into the position after Baningime’s injury against Livingston and started there in the 1-1 draw with Ross County this past weekend, yet the former Rangers ace has often been preferred on the left-side of defence this campaign and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see him stationed there against the Hibees.
The other option is that of Toby Sibbick – even if it’s only through an old Hearts connection that he has any past experience of playing the position in his senior career.
Fans know Sibbick as a central midfielder from his first spell at the club, where he started in his only two games before a combination of illness and a global pandemic stopped him from appearing further, but it’s not a role he’s used to playing much in his senior career. In fact, prior to the final seven minutes against Livingston where he replaced Halliday, he’d only ever operated in the position under the tutelage of ex-Hearts boss Daniel Stendel, who also coached the player at Barnsley.
"I think it was the first time I'd played there since the last time I was up here and my final match against St Johnstone,” the 22-year-old told the Evening News. “I played there a couple of times while at Barnsley and a bit more in my youth football days, but not properly professionally. It's something I've only done a few times in my career. But if I'm asked to fill in anywhere then I'm more than happy to because I'm quite a versatile player.
“It was a weird one [with Stendel]. When he brought me in at Barnsley he played me right-back. Then we had a few injuries. I remember a game against Wigan, that was when I first played in midfield. He always said to me that he could see me playing in centre-mid with how he wanted to play: high-pressing, highly energetic, in a 4-4-2. He thought I had the legs to do it. I did enjoy it. It's a different sort of challenge. I do like playing there but mainly with other managers I've been part of a back three.
“If I play in the middle I'm more high energy, box to box. I like to carry the ball and play. And I'm quite quick in well. In transitions I think it would work pretty well.”
What about alongside Haring? “He's a quality player. He always talks to you as well, which makes your life easier. His quality on the ball is unmatched. Sometimes he sees balls nobody else can and he always wants the ball.
“They'd be coming up against a lot of physicality. Me and Pete like to compete and dominate things, both in training and in games. So if that were to happen, I think Hibs would know there would be a lot of physical play in there and that we're there to compete.”
Sibbick started Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ross County at right-back after Nathaniel Atkinson was rested following his 90-minute debut for the Australian national team in midweek. The ‘natural’ centre-back was a stand-out the last time Hearts played Hibs, including making an injury-time goal-line clearance in the 0-0 draw at Easter Road, but this past weekend was his first start since the 2-1 defeat to St Johnstone in mid-February.
The January signing, who joined on a three-and-a-half-year deal, is content to be patient, knowing he was bought with a long-term vision in mind. Part of which will be Hearts needing a replacement when John Souttar leaves for Rangers in the summer.
"When I was first brought in there were a few injuries and I was thrown straight into the action after not playing for quite a while before moving to Hearts, so I quite enjoyed that,” said Sibbick.
"Recently I've been sitting on the bench a bit more watching. But I think next season I'll find more consistent game time, which will allow me to find my feet a bit more and help me play consistently to a good level. But at the moment it's just a case of taking things one game at a time. I don't get too carried away.”
So, regardless of whether he’s helping his team-mates from centre-back, right-back, centre-midfield, or cheering them on from the bench, what do Hearts need to improve to finally beat Hibs this season?
“Score, mainly,” laughed Sibbick. “I thought we were very unfortunate at their place. We were denied a stonewall penalty and then another penalty in the second half for a handball.
"We had the foundations. We were fairly solid in that game. Second half they barely had a sniff. We feel we dominated the game and were disappointed to come away with a draw. We're a home now so we want to get out, get the win and hopefully get the goals our play deserves.”
“I don't think we're going to do anything differently from the first game to the second. At the end of the day, on the pitch it's 11 against 11. I think in most derbies it's not all about tactics, it's about desire and who wants it more.”