Grant Murray challenged Hibs Under-20s to kick on and win the SPFL Development League title after they maintained their three-point advantage at the top of the table with a hard-fought Edinburgh derby victory over Hearts.
In what was the first match played in front of the newly-completed stand on the outside pitch at Oriam, a first-half double from Lewis Allan and a second-half header from Josh Campbell were enough to secure a crucial victory for the Hibs youngsters on a day when nearest challengers Dundee and Aberdeen also won.
The result effectively ended Hearts’ hopes of claiming the title, although Celtic, who are 20 points off the pace with six games in hand, will still feel they have a chance in what now looks to be a four-horse race.
Hibs have four games remaining and coach Murray has urged his young hopefuls to make the most of their opportunity after they faded at the business end last year and allowed Ross County to land the title. “I’m delighted because there was a bit of pressure on us with us being top of the league for so long,” he said. “If Hearts had won it would have made it very tight at the top but we found a way to win the game. Our main aim is to push players into the first team but, as young players, they need that winning mentality as well, and these boys have got that. Having got themselves into this position, they should be thinking about winning the title.”
Hearts fielded the more experienced of the two sides, with senior players Jack Hamilton, Prince Buaben and Ross Callachan all starting, along with teenagers like Andy Irving, Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson who have featured regularly in the first-team this season. Aidan Keena, the teenage Irish striker who has scored seven goals on loan at Queen’s Park in the past two months, wore the captain’s armband. The most notable names in the Hibs side were Oli Shaw, Callum Crane, Scott Martin and Allan.
Hibs had the first clear chance in 14 minutes when Allan got himself clear on goal after a lapse by Buaben but Hamilton stood up and made a fine save. Hearts seized the advantage in the 19th minute when Henderson’s cross from the left wasn’t dealt with by the Hibs defence and Callachan ghosted in unmarked and had all the time he needed to calmly slot past the exposed Paddy Martin from 12 yards out.
Hibs were playing well, though, and Hamilton did well to stop Campbell’s driven cross deflecting in off Hearts left-back Rico Quitongo. Then came a three-goal flurry within the space of five minutes. Hibs qualised in the 36th minute when Callum Donaldson beat Quitongo wide on the right, burst into the box and played the ball across the face of goal for Allan, who slotted into the gaping net from a few yards out. And the visitors went ahead two minutes later when Sean Mackie latched on to an Shaw flick-on wide on the left and slipped in Allan, who ran clear to tuck the ball emphatically past Hamilton from the edge of the box.
Hearts equalised four minutes before the break when Callumn Morrison rasped a brilliant angled strike high past Martin from 16 yards out after good work by Moore to set him up. Hibs scored what proved to be the winner six minutes after the restart when Campbell headed in Mackie’s corner from close range.
Hearts then hit the woodwork twice in quick succession as Morrison fired a free kick off the top of the crossbar in the 53rd minute before Keena rasped a superb strike from 20 yards out against the post two minutes later.
Chances thereafter were few and far between, with the only notable incident in the closing half hour an injury which forced Buaben off.
A delighted Murray added: “I thought we deserved it. We played very well in the first half. We didn’t play as well in the second half but we managed the game well. Derbies are always big games at any level so I’m delighted for the boys. Hearts had a convincing win over us earlier in the season and it hurt the boys, so this was a great result for them. They had a couple of experienced boys playing but that’s good for our guys because it tests them.”
Hearts Under-20s coach Andy Kirk conceded Hibs were worthy winners. “It’s a hard one to take considering how well we’ve been playing this season,” he said. “The most disappointing thing was the performance. A lot of boys who have been doing well recently just didn’t quite get to the level. The goals we conceded were really poor and our decision-making was poor at times. Hibs had a wee bit more about them than us. We just didn’t do enough.”
Hearts: Hamilton, Sandison, Gajda, Buaben (Ritchie 68), Quitongo (Paton 57), Morrison, Callachan, Irving, Moore, Henderson, Keena. Subs not used: Mason, C Smith, Ward, Logan.
Hibs: P Martin, Donaldson, Mackie, Campbell, Waugh, Crane, Gullan, Stirling, Shaw, Martin, Allan. Subs not used: Watson, Paton, Woods, Gallantes, Dabrowski.
Referee: Scott Lambie.