Toby Sibbick's transformation into a Hearts cult hero with his own song and stats behind the redemption
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Perhaps Sibbick wasn’t all that bad a player to begin with and simply became an easy scapegoat for some Hearts critics. Either way, he has gone from depressing jeers to cult hero in a fortnight. It is a transformation largely played out on the European stage, resulting in fans singing his chant on repeat during the 2-1 win against RFS. Sibbick was deservedly named man of the match after unquestionably his finest performance in maroon.
A commanding substitute outing against Fiorentina in the Stadio Artemio Franchi two weeks ago seems to be the catalyst for this redemption. He hadn’t played for almost a month as management sought to protect their young defender and allow him time to regain confidence after some stinging criticism – both inside stadiums and on social media. After a fine display in Italy despite a 5-1 loss, Sibbick spoke exclusively to the Evening News about trying to prove detractors wrong.
He played 90 minutes in Hearts’ two subsequent Premiership matches against Aberdeen and Celtic but finished on the losing side both times. Thursday’s Europa Conference League tie with the Latvian champions might well prove a key moment in his Tynecastle career. The victory raised collective morale after a difficult run of results and the versatile Englishman was the outstanding player afield. Statistics from the night back up that theory.
Sibbick won every tackle he entered into as well as one key interception in the defensive third. He was successful in three of his four aerial duels and recovered five loose balls in total. Of the 56 passes he attempted, 47 reached their intended target, resulting in a pass completion rate of 83.9 per cent. He finished the 90 minutes without committing a single foul on an opponent. RFS forwards like Emerson Deocleciano and Andrej Ilic were most probably sick of the sight of him by the time the final whistle sounded.
Indeed, it was telling to witness RFS officials in front of Tynecastle’s press box visibly upset each time Sibbick or one of his colleagues dispossessed a Latvian player to stifle an attack. Their anger increased to fits of rage on occasions when referee Bram van Driessche gave certain decisions against them. If their evening was frustrating, Hearts know how they feel given their run of only three wins in 15 games prior to Thursday.
It is too early to say for definite whether we are witnessing a player coming of age in Sibbick. At 23, he is still young and relatively inexperienced. Like any footballer his age, he still has a mistake in him and will no doubt suffer confidence peaks and troughs in the months ahead. Crucially, he has shown powers of recovery when events conspire against him. He also harbours all the attributes you would want in an identikit defender: Blinding pace, physical strength, a 6ft 2in frame and the ability to distribute the ball.
Speed has always been a major part of his repertoire. Sibbick was a sprinter of some repute during his early teens. Originally from Feltham, West London, he represented his county, Middlesex, in the 100 metres. The rapid nature of his transformation at Hearts might be taking him slightly by surprise, however others always had confidence in him.
“We see the quality Toby has got in training,” said team-mate Andy Halliday. “He’s a big boy, he’s lightning quick for a centre-half. When we want to play that high [defensive] line he is brave because he knows he has that pace to deal with players one-versus-one. I thought he showed that on Thursday. Anything that was asked of him, he dealt with it really well. For centre-halves who don’t get runs in the team it is very difficult. He has shown over the last few games he has a big part to play in any success we have over the rest of the season.”
Chants from the stands were unavoidable as they reached deafening levels towards the end of the evening. Perhaps some disparagers felt obliged to atone for being too quick to criticise Sibbick. It was music to the ears of all concerned. “I’m delighted for him as I would be for any player,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager. “That confidence of the performance, but also the confidence of the other players to back him, which they have done. We all know he’s a good player, we see it in training every day. It’s about bringing that onto the pitch and he’s managed to do that in the last couple of games.
“The biggest thing for me was hearing the fans roar. They come to European games wanting to see goals and we’ve not managed to score as many as we would like here. On Thursday we got the roar of the crowd and it really kicked us on. RFS, in the first 15 to 20 minutes when we brought the energy and the fans brought the energy, they really struggled with that intensity. That shows what we can do.”
The Tynecastle side certainly demonstrated their capabilities on an enjoyable European night with Sibbick as commander-in-chief. The Gorgie public can continue loving him till their hearts break.