Former Hibs heroes recall famous Edinburgh derby victory over Hearts in Easter Road curtain-raiser
Hibs chairman Ron Gordon would perhaps be surprised to know that it’s been quite the 21st century tradition for Hearts and his club to play each other in a first home league match of the season.
It happened on no fewer than eight occasions between 2000 and 2014, including a three-season run before the eight-year hiatus which will end this Sunday at Easter Road. In fact, it was often Hearts who were forced into the role of hosts, welcoming their Edinburgh rivals to Tynecastle six times.
The record leans in Hearts’ favour, as should be expected given the typical venue, with two Hibs victories. While it certainly felt sweet when Brian Kerr’s early goal proved to be enough for three points in an unusual midweek beginning to the 2007-08 campaign, it didn’t quite match the elation felt in Leith four years prior when Hibs overcame a streak of derby disappointments, and a controversial first-half red card, to vanquish Craig Levein’s visitors in stoppage time.
It enacted a modicum of revenge for the season prior when Hearts secured a hat-trick of memorable Capital derby moments. Following Mark de Vries’ four-goal debut and Phil Stamp’s late winner, Hibs avoided defeat in the final clash of the campaign but still left despondent having thrown away a two-goal lead in stoppage time.
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"You try to not to look too far back and treat each game in isolation, but it's obviously at the back of your mind, particularly the 4-4 game,” said former Hibs captain Ian Murray. “We played quite well that night. It's not often a Hibs team scores four goals at Tynecastle. It was just a crazy, crazy game.”
If that match was a classic, this game was anything but for the neutral. Played in a sweltering August heat, the dynamics of the game were changed dramatically in the 36th minute when Grant Brebner was sent off for a foul on Robert Sloan by match official Stuart Dougal. Hibs boss Bobby Williamson was incensed by the decision, while a pitch-invading Hibs supporter had to be stopped from getting to the referee.
“You're talking about this game happening twenty years ago when it was considered a yellow,” said Murray. “Everyone was shocked when it was given as a red. But, you know, maybe the atmosphere of the derby made the referee a little nervous himself and he's panicked.”
This campaign would prove to be the breakout year for a young Derek Riordan. He netted 18 goals in 40 appearances having only just established himself as a first-team player toward the end of the previous season. But he wouldn’t be the hero on this occasion. Instead, he made way for eventual match-winner Garry O’Connor midway through the second period.
"The red card is probably why I was substituted. They didn't want any of the lazy players left on. They kept the ones on who could do the running,” joked Riordan.
"I remember seeing it from the bench. It was brilliant. Hearts were the stronger team in the derby back then. They always seemed to get the better of us. It's always good to get a win against them, especially being a Hibs fan.”
Hearts had the majority of possession but struggled to create anything against a stubborn short-handed opponent. It looked like the game was heading for a stalemate until O’Connor was put through in stoppage time. The striker fired low and hard, finding a sweet spot where Tepi Moilanen dived to save but couldn’t get low enough in time and allowed the ball to squeeze under his body.
"Big Gaz had a good record in derbies. He maybe didn't do it spectacularly like Deeks [Riordan], but he certainly came up with a few important ones,” recalled team-mate Kevin Thomson, who watched in the stands that day.
"When Garry scored the goal I don't think any of us were exactly aware of the time. I thought there was still 10-15 minutes to go,” said Murray. “I remember Hearts went up the other end and had a great chance to level with Steven Pressley knocking it just past the post.”
Hibs held on and Easter Road exploded with elation at full-time. It was party time, but only once the players had managed to catch their breath.
"I remember coming off knackered,” said Murray. “It was so warm and we'd worked so hard. We were delighted and exuberant, but I remember that being my first thought after the game, 'I'm absolutely exhausted'.”
Unfortunately for Hibs, this victory didn’t represent a change in the power balance. At least not this season. They wouldn’t win any of their next five league games, while Hearts started the campaign with four victories from five – the O’Connor goal being the only one they conceded – en route to a comfortable third-place finish. Hibs had the ability to turn it on, as evidenced by beating Celtic and Rangers on their way to the League Cup final, but ended up eighth in the league.
"We had a lot of talent come through but it was a bit of a transition, going from the big hitters like Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy to then have a conveyer belt of young talent,” said Thomson. “The unpredictability of the Hibs team in that era came down to youthfulness. Hearts brought through some good young players as well – like Craig Gordon and Andy Webster – but just the number of young players at Hibs made the team more inconsistent.”
The league disappointment and cup final defeat to Livingston pretty much spelled the end of Williamson’s time in charge as Tony Mowbray soon took over and sparked a revolution.
"I had a lot of time for Bobby,” said Riordan. “He put a lot of trust in me. I enjoyed playing for him. I was disappointed when he left but I was still young. You eventually learn you don't get a lot of time in football.”