Paul Heckingbottom is braced for the biggest test of his Hibs reign so far when he takes his team across the city to face Hearts tomorrow.
The Yorkshireman has already come up against the Premiership’s top three teams – Celtic, Rangers and Kilmarnock – in his opening eight matches in charge.
However, he believes that the unique demands of derby day make this weekend’s match a particularly hazardous one as his team look to extend their seven-game unbeaten run in the league.
“This will be our biggest test so far,” said Heckingbottom, who was yesterday named Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the month for March. “It will be a different type of test. We faced arguably the most organised team in the league on Wednesday night in the shape of Kilmarnock and not many sides have been that difficult to play against when we have had the ball. They were well disciplined.
“Celtic and Rangers are top drawer and they came to hurt us rather than stop us but Kilmarnock have been the best at taking away our strengths and that was a new challenge.
“This challenge (against Hearts) is still only three points but it is a derby and there is a rivalry there and it is all about handling the intensity of the occasion. Tynecastle is a different stage and a different environment to play in. It will be good to see how my players respond to that.”
Heckingbottom, whose side can overtake fifth-place Hearts if they win at Tynecastle for the first time in nearly six years, is anticipating an attritional battle.
“Hearts are a difficult, physical team to play against,” he said. “It will be a hard game. Whether you perform well or not, there is so much hype and intensity and adrenalin involved in these matches.
“That’s why derbies are sometimes too frantic to play any football.
“We’d like to think we can get the ball down and play, but the nature of a derby, regardless of what type of team Hearts are, will make it a really frenetic game.”
Centre-back Darren McGregor is likely to come back into the starting lineup tomorrow after being restricted to a second-half substitute role against Kilmarnock on Wednesday.
Heckingbottom explained that he reverted to the team that had performed so well in the previous home match against Motherwell before the international break, dropping Mark Milligan back into defence and restoring Vykintas Slivka to midfield. This move allowed him to preserve 33-year-old McGregor for what promises to be a gruelling encounter in Gorgie tomorrow.
“We picked the same team that played against Motherwell,” he said. “We thought the Kilmarnock game would be similar to Livingston last Friday in terms of them setting up to leave us on the ball, make it difficult for us and try and counter us, so we wanted to be good with the ball and move it quick.
“We’ve now got Darren 100 per cent ready for Saturday. It’s well documented he doesn’t train every day, but he manages himself great and while I’ve been here he’s been fit and available for every game.”