Kevin Harper believes Hibs are destined to finish this season as the top team in Edinburgh regardless of the result in Friday’s derby.
The newly-promoted Easter Road side are nine points clear of Hearts and also have a game in hand. With the Tynecastle side having only nine Premiership matches remaining in which to wipe out the deficit, Harper believes there’s no chance of Hibs being caught by their city rivals.
“If Hibs win on Friday, it guarantees them finishing ahead of Hearts for me,” said the former Easter Road striker. “But, to be honest, regardless of whether Hibs win, lose or draw on Friday, I think they’ll finish above Hearts come the end of the season. I don’t see Hibs losing many games because they haven’t up until now. Hearts have obviously been on a decent run but Hibs are still nine points ahead of them with a game in hand. That’s a huge lead at this stage. Hearts effectively have to win four more games than Hibs in their last nine games of the season. It would be too big a swing and I can’t see it happening. If Hibs win on Friday, it obviously takes them even further ahead.”
After a slow start to the season, Hearts have lost only three of their past 19 matches in all competitions – a run that incorporates a Scottish Cup win over Hibs at Tynecastle in January. Harper acknowledges that the Gorgie side are now a much tougher nut to crack than they were last season, but he feels Hibs, who have won four of their six matches since losing the last derby, are still the better of the two teams.
“Hearts have been on a good run lately – they’ve not lost many games – but I feel like Hibs are the team with the momentum,” he said. “Hibs have the more creative midfield. Hearts tend to be a bit bigger and stronger than Hibs but I feel like Neil Lennon has brought good solidity to this Hibs team. They’re not a lightweight team any more and they’re also capable of creating chances. The two teams are getting closer – Hearts’ victory in the last one will give them confidence – but I think Hibs are still the better team. If it becomes a battle, Hearts will probably have the upper hand, but if Hibs are able to play the football they can, then I think they’ll win the game.”
Harper believes Hibs are well suited to derby matches because of the steel instilled in them by manager Neil Lennon. “I can’t say enough about Neil Lennon and what he’s done at Hibs,” he said. “He’s brought in a determination and a never-say-die spirit that wasn’t necessarily there before. The grit that the team possess just now is typical of Neil Lennon as a player. Everybody knows what he expects, and if they don’t do it, they won’t be in the team. What Neil’s brought to Hibs has been fantastic.”
Harper believes supporters will enjoy the novelty of a derby on a Friday night. “Derbies at night always seem that bit extra special, with the fans and players right up for it,” he said. “Playing under the lights just seems to give it that wee bit extra. With it being a Friday, fans will get in from their work and be ready to start the weekend by going and supporting their team. They’ll be right up for it.”
Harper has plenty positive derby memories from his own time as a Hibs player, with the highlights being his winning goals in 2-1 victories on New Year’s Day 1996 and at the business end of the 1997/98 campaign. “Scoring the winner on New Year’s Day – I don’t think it comes any bigger than that, especially considering we’d just lost 7-0 to Rangers two days before that,” said Harper. “I also enjoyed scoring in the game that played a part in stopping Hearts win the league in 1998. The first derby I played in, when Gordon Hunter scored at Tynecastle and we stopped the rot, was exceptional as well. It was brilliant to see the faces of the older players in the team who had been part of the 22 in a row. Coming into the team off the back of that run, I was fortunate to play in a period when Hibs generally held their own against Hearts.”