Neil Lennon and Craig Levein have never been ones to shy away from anything. As players, no tackle was shirked and now, as managers, neither is afraid to speak his mind no matter the fall-out.
The verbal jousts between Hibs boss Lennon and his Hearts counterpart have added a new dimension, as if one were needed, to the hype which surrounds the Edinburgh derby.
Damning Hearts as “irrelevant” as his side opened up a yawning gap between them and their Capital rivals last season was a jibe from Lennon countered by Levein claiming that “natural order” had been restored after the Gorgie outfit had knocked Hibs out of the Scottish Cup.
Those words were rammed down his throat by goals from Scott Allan and Jamie Maclaren the next time the two met only for Levein to hit back after Hearts won the final derby, claiming that knocking Hibs out of the cup and ending their hopes of finishing second in the league did, after all, make Hearts “relevant”.
Easter Road defender Darren McGregor insists that, for all their spats, deep down the pair actually like each other, an observation undoubtedly supported by Lennon’s concern for Levein when he suffered heart problems, reciprocated after the Northern Irishman had been struck in the face by a coin at Tynecastle.
“It’s all part of the game,” he said. “You get rivalries whether it’s the players or managers. It’s maybe a bit of showmanship, both managers want to win, they are both feisty in their own right – so it’s great.
“As long as it stays on the park, in the confines of the game, it’s great because it motivates us and the fans.”
As a lifelong Hibs supporter himself, McGregor admitted it’s these clashes with the Gorgie outfit which gets the heart racing. He said: “I enjoy the rivalry, the fans love it.
“The build-up to it is why you are in the game, to play at great stadiums against your arch enemies and stuff. That’s why football is such a great game.”
Both Hibs and Hearts have emerged from long winless runs with confidence restored, Lennon’s players undefeated in six, including three matches against either side of the Old Firm, while their rivals clocked up only their second victory in 11 games by beating Hamilton on Boxing Day.
The fact that despite that record Hearts go into tomorrow’s match four points better off than him and his team-mates is, insisted McGregor, testament to the whirlwind start to the season Levein’s players enjoyed when they lost just one of their opening 11 league matches.
The 32-year-old said: “I think it shows how they started that they are still where they are after such a poor run. But we went through the same thing ourselves, we went seven games without a win. They are a good team, a dangerous team, and the games between us since I came to Hibs have been really tight and close. I’d imagine it will be the same again.”
While Hearts sit fifth in the table and Hibs three places below them, McGregor was adamant that, after a summer overhaul following the loss of key players such as John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Allan, Lennon’s side are moving in the right direction while conceding their cause would be helped if they could turn draws into wins.
Hibs have drawn eight games so far, more than any other team in the top flight and, while happy to be six matches unbeaten, four of them have ended in stalemate.
McGregor said: “The league position we are in is not ideal – we’d like to be higher up the table. But there’s not much between the teams.
“I think we are doing the right things and that’s us unbeaten in six, albeit we have only won a couple of games. We are not far away. We are definitely working towards something and hopefully going to Ibrox and coming away with a point gives us confidence to take into the weekend. We could definitely be doing more in games to either see them out or to win. There’s been some instances of slackness – from myself as well – that’s caused us to lose goals. It’s something we are working on. We believe we are a good side and obviously going to Ibrox and getting a draw, drawing at home against Rangers and beating Celtic gives us confidence. But we should definitely be doing more to win games.”
The final game of 2019 brings to an end a tough schedule of matches for Hibs, their last five fixtures – three of which were against the Old Firm – crammed into just two weeks. It’s been unrelenting with a visit from a Livingston side which has made everyone sit up and take notice squeezed into that programme.
As at Ibrox, Hibs came from behind to draw with Livingston, the one match out of the five they’d have been expected to win but McGregor insisted: “It’s a lot tighter this year. People look at teams like Livingston and, from where we are, we should be winning games at home against these types of teams.
“But there is no divine right to win. They are all tough games and, if you take your foot off the pedal, you can get punished. We’ve all been well aware of that over the past few weeks. Playing Hearts, we have to stick to our strengths and hopefully come out of it with the result.”
Lennon hadn’t spared his players’ blushes following that draw with Livingston but, claimed McGregor, he and his team-mates had reacted as their boss would have wanted, coming back from going behind to Alfredo Morelos’ 20th goal of the season with the defender heading home Sean Mackie’s cross.
It was McGregor’s first goal since scoring twice against Queen of the South 20 months ago as Hibs clinched the Championship title and a return to the Premiership following a three year absence.
McGregor, who was voted Rangers’ player of the year in his solitary season at Ibrox, said: “Losing the goal in the manner we did was disappointing but I thought we stuck to our task. They are a quality side. It’s an intimidating place so to score in the last five minutes was big, not just for myself, but the team. It shows character and I think a point was the least we deserved. That’s three times we’ve played the Old Firm in the last week and haven’t been beaten – that’s the positive we can take.”