It’s the natural order of things, Hearts turn up at Easter Road and head for home empty handed, this the fifth time in succession they’d travelled back across the city having suffered derby-day defeat.
Jambos boss Craig Levein had made much, of course, of his side’s win last time out at Tynecastle, a result which ended Hibs’ run of nine derbies without defeat, his words at the time riling his opposite number Neil Lennon as they were undoubtedly intended.
But, as the maroon hordes made an early exit last night, it was the Hibs fans who were in full voice, delighted in not showing Levein any mercy. “Are you watching Craig Levein?”, thundered down from three of the Leith ground’s stands before being replaced by “Sunshine on Leith” as Lennon’s players took a deserved lap of honour.
Levein was left to watch, thanking his own players for their efforts but well aware they’d simply been second best on the night.
To put it bluntly, Hibs blew their Capital rivals away in the second half, goals from Scott Allan and Jamie MacLaren firing them 12 points ahead of Hearts with a game in hand, and maintaining their hope of catching Aberdeen in third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
They were goals which ended Hearts’ faint hope of reeling Hibs in, a result which leaves the Gorgie outfit, having already dropped to sixth, nervously looking over their shoulders at Motherwell in the coming weeks.
Lennon had just the one apparently straightforward decision to make, Paul Hanlon returning to his usual berth in central defence having missed the trip to Kilmarnock after the birth of his son a fortnight ago, leaving teenager Ryan Porteous to drop to the bench.
Hearts pitched up at Easter Road seeking their first win on the other side of the city in four years although, if the pre-match noises emanating from Gorgie were to be believed, they did so more in hope than expectation.
But while the players were no doubt anxious to get underway and so rid themselves of those early nerves, they were made to wait a full five minutes beyond the scheduled start as referee Bobby Madden waited for two smoke bombs which had been thrown on to the pitch to be dealt with.
When the action did get underway, it was predictably frenetic, the tackles flying in with Joaquim Adao, the recipient of yellow cards in each of his first six matches in a maroon shirt, leaving his calling card on Martin Boyle as Madden ignored the howls of the home fans for some form of retribution to the Hearts midfielder.
Finesse, as always, was of secondary consideration as both sides sought to impose themselves on their opponents, that struggle for composure reflected in the number of misdirected passes which prevented either side settling into a rhythm.
It took 28 minutes for a real threat on goal, Boyle stepping away from the right touchline to use his searing pace in leaving a string of opposing players in his wake before firing off a low shot which saw Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin drop to his right to easily take.
If Lennon had been concerned that almost a fortnight of inaction might induce some rustiness among his players it certainly wasn’t evident in the opening half, plenty of sweat and effort on display as it was from the men from Tynecastle.
If craft and guile weren’t going to bring a goal then, perhaps, a mistake might break the deadlock and it almost did, Ofir Marciano and team-mate Darren McGregor getting their wires crossed as they attempted to deal with Marcus Godinho’s cross from the right, the goalkeeper getting there first but needing his central defender to mop up as the ball broke free.
At the other end, Hearts captain Christophe Berra, again playing with a pain-killing injection in an ankle injury, was at full stretch to get his head to Efe Ambrose’s cross before the half closed with John McGinn blazing wildly over as he met a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area. Referee Madden had been prepared to let things go without resorting to his cards but Michael Smith tested his patience just a little too much, the Hearts midfielder booked three minutes after the restart for a trip on McGinn.
The pace, however, remained unrelenting although neither side was able to find that final killer ball despite the respective efforts of Dylan McGeouch for Hibs and Hearts’ Steven Naismith in the middle of the park.
A goal finally did come and, as is so often the case in derbies, from the unlikeliest of sources. Skipper Hanlon abandoned his defensive duties to find himself taking Florian Kamberi’s pass inside Hearts’ penalty area before quickly shifting it to Allan, who drilled in a low left-footed shot from just outside the box which found the bottom corner of McLaughlin’s net. It was Allan’s first goal in a green-and-white jersey since a League Cup tie against Montrose nearly three years ago.
Maclaren, aiming to claim his place in Australia’s squad for this summer’s World Cup, has found goals, other than his penalty-kick winner against Rangers, hard to find and he must have been left wondering what he had to do when McLaughlin got a hand to his shot before it crashed back off the underside of the bar.
Lennon took the pragmatic step of replacing goalscorer Allan with the more physical presence of Marvin Bartley to shield the back four and offer further resistance to Hearts’ attempts of going into the last quarter of an hour and somehow wrestling an equaliser. But Adao almost gifted Hibs the second goal to end the match as a contest, the Angolan player failing to spot Maclaren lurking as he passed the ball back to McLaughlin but luckily enough for him it carried sufficient weight for his goalkeeper to win the race.
Maclaren, though, wasn’t to be denied, the 24-year-old showing the predatory skills which brought him 20 goals in just 29 games for Brisbane Roar – and with it Australian football’s Golden Boot – as he pounced on a loose ball in between three defenders and drilled it beyond McLaughlin before wheeling away in obvious delight, pursued by his equally happy team-mates.