Ex-Hibs star Garry O’Connor recalls halting league leaders Hearts

Garry O'Connor slams the ball into the net to double Hibs' lead against Hearts
Garry O'Connor slams the ball into the net to double Hibs' lead against Hearts
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Being charged with trying to stop a runaway Hearts team at this time of year is nothing new for Hibs.

As they head to Tynecastle tomorrow looking to rein in a side who have surged five points clear at the top of the table, Neil Lennon’s men can take some encouragement from a match that took place 13 years ago yesterday.

O'Connor celebrates his goal back in October 2005

O'Connor celebrates his goal back in October 2005

On October 29, 2005, the Easter Road side hosted their city rivals who, at that point, were three points clear of Celtic at the top of the table having gone through the first 12 league matches unbeaten.

Hearts had infamously sacked their manager George Burley a week previously but under the caretaker charge of John McGlynn had maintained their stunning start with back-to-back wins over Dunfermline Athletic and Kilmarnock. Hibs, managed by Tony Mowbray and moving along nicely in third place with a swashbuckling young team, produced a rousing display at Easter Road to end Hearts’ unbeaten opening to the campaign, with Guillaume Beuzelin and Garry O’Connor on target in a 2-0 win as the league leaders had Edgaras Jankauskas sent off.

“In the dressing-room, I remember there was a bit of talk about us wanting to be the team to stop them,” O’Connor told the Evening News. “We weren’t that far behind them at the time. We had all these young players who would go on to have good careers and we had Tony Mowbray, who was a fantastic coach who inspired us. He would speak to people individually and tell them what he wanted. Hearts were flying at that time and had a great team but Tony would have been through hours of footage of them. He lifted us for every game. Even when we went up against Celtic and Rangers we never had any fear because we were mostly young boys who were maybe even a bit naive.

“You know against Hearts that you have to win the battle first and, if you do that, you’ve got a chance of winning the game. We got told that from every manager going into the derby – the importance of making sure you win the battle, particularly in the first 20 minutes, and then the game tends to open up a wee bit. We really went at them in the second half that day and deserved our win. We had a good young team but Hearts had invested a lot of money in that team so it was good to knock them off their perch a wee bit. That game was one of the highlights of my career. The boys were buzzing after it.”

Despite being five points clear, Hearts have already lost in the league this season, away to Rangers at the start of October. They are yet to taste defeat at Tynecastle, however, a venue Hibs haven’t won at for more than five years. Nine winless trips to Gorgie have elapsed since Ross Caldwell’s late goal secured a 2-1 win for Pat Fenlon’s team in May 2013.

O’Connor knows how hard it is to get a result in enemy territory although he did score one of his six Edinburgh derby goals in a midweek 2-1 success in Gorgie in April 2005. “As a Hibs fan, scoring in a win over Hearts in front of the Hibs fans at the Roseburn end is one of the best memories I’ve got,” said the 35-year-old former striker. “It’s just fantastic, the adrenaline rush you get. I don’t think it was a great goal. I think I kind of sclaffed it after Craig Gordon mis-hit a clearance, but they all count!

“I loved playing at Tynecastle. It’s a tight pitch and I used to get pelters but that’s part and parcel of football. You get used to it as you mature. It’s a great atmosphere to play in. It’s a test mentally for a Hibs player playing at Tynecastle but this Hibs team have got players like Paul Hanlon, Lewis Stevenson and Darren McGregor, plenty boys who have been at Tynecastle numerous times.”

Although Hibs sit in sixth place, they are only three points behind champions Celtic and four points off second-placed Kilmarnock. A win tomorrow would move them within five points of Hearts with a game in hand.

O’Connor is pleased to see the two Capital clubs making their presence felt at the top end and believes his former club still have plenty of reasons for optimism despite trailing their city rivals at present.

“I couldn’t be happier about seeing the two of them doing well,” said O’Connor, mindful of the fact both teams have been in the Championship and the bottom six of the Premiership in the not-so-distant past.

“I prefer it when it’s like this, honestly. It’s been a great league so far – I’m really enjoying it – and I just hope Hearts and Hibs can both stay up there.

“Edinburgh’s got two strong teams at the moment and it would be fantastic if they could both still be up there challenging come Christmas time.

“I think Hibs are playing the best football in the country at the moment. And Hearts have been absolutely fantastic, I must say. I know they’re struggling with injuries but come derby day, anything can happen. Hibs and Lenny will fancy their chances.

“I love Lenny. He wants to pass the ball and play football the right way. He’s done a fantastic job at Hibs. Even after losing John McGinn, he’s brought good players in. I don’t think Hibs are far off Hearts or anyone else at the moment.”

Prediction for tomorrow? “I fancy a draw,” said O’Connor. “I’m pretty sure it’ll be a tight game.”