7 things that must happen for Hearts and Hibs to sustain a title bid
After eight games, Edinburgh's two biggest football clubs occupy first and second in the Ladbrokes Premiership table.
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Few reading this need reminding that only Celtic and Rangers have managed to win Scottish football’s greatest prize since Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen did so in 1985, so it’s safe to say even the thought of either side sustaining this sort of form right until May next year is somewhat fanciful.
But why should that stop us all from dreaming? Here are seven, not-so-easy steps for Hearts and Hibs to maintain their challenge right until the final weeks of the season.
Top stars need to keep performing
This almost goes without saying. The key performers on each team have to continue the level of excellence witnessed through eight games for the entire 38-match run. That means Steven Naismith has to continue playing like a Player of the Year candidate, Stevie Mallan has to keep scoring with just about every touch, Uche Ikpeazu must continue ragdolling defenders, Martin Boyle needs to haunt the minds of full-backs, Olly Lee to constantly reproduce tantalising set-pieces, Efe Ambrose to stay the coolest centre-back around... you get the point.
Bounce back after disappointment
Aberdeen flew out of the blocks in the 2015-16 season, winning their first eight fixtures. But once they suffered defeat they went on a winless stretch almost as lengthy, securing only one victory in seven. Hearts, in the same campaign, won their first five fixtures. They then lost a late lead at Hamilton and didn’t win any of their next five. Hibs suffered a spectacular collapse in the second half of 2009-10, where losing became a habit in the same manner winning had before Christmas.
The point is that there are many examples of teams from outside Glasgow showing championship-contending form over a short period, but ultimately suffering a disappointing defeat and slumping down towards the rest of the pack again. With the exception of one team in the last 100 or so years, nobody can go through an entire league undefeated. The trick is to treat these inconveniences as mere set-backs and not let them define the campaign.
Hibs have already shown themselves capable of rebounding from defeat this term, as they’ve reeled off four straight league wins following the 2-1 loss at Livingston. It’s a consistency Hibs have struggled for in the past and if they can remain competitive in upcoming games against Celtic, Hearts and Rangers - and recent history suggests they will - then they’re certainly capable of hanging around for a while yet.
As for the current league leaders, they must extract the positives out of Sunday’s defeat to Rangers and believe they can maintain their position. Aberdeen (home), Dundee (away) and Hibs (home) is a tough run of games, but getting nine points is not outwith the realms of possibility and would send a message, to themselves more than anyone else, that they’re not going to meekly retreat back into the pack any time soon.
Stay relatively injury free
Both teams have already had their troubles and dealt with them pretty well. Hearts have been without Christophe Berra since midway through their second game, while Hibs’ talismanic striker Flo Kamberi struggled with a knee problem to begin the season, which caused inconsistent form followed by a spell on the sidelines. There’s undeniably strength in depth in both squads, so they should be able to handle injury concerns, even significant ones.
That being said, you can never quite know for sure which area of the park or individual player is the most valuable in any team. For Hearts, perhaps it’s the omnipresent Peter Haring in the engine room, hovering up second balls and keeping his side on the front foot. At Easter Road, maybe it’s Mark Milligan’s experience and reading of the game in front of the back four that Hibs will end up missing the most if he’s unavailable for selection.
Hope both halves of the Old Firm have an off-year
In the past 25 years there’s only been one sustained challenge from a club outside the Old Firm, and that was Hearts in 1997/98. Jim Jefferies’ side were right there with the Glasgow twosome until the beginning of April. Having just earned a creditable draw at Parkhead, they then failed to win any of their next five games, with the fatal blow coming at the hands of rivals Hibs in a 2-1 derby defeat.
Despite winning only two of their final ten fixtures, they still finished just seven points off the top. They were able to achieve this, in part, because neither Celtic nor Rangers performed particularly well that season. Celtic took the crown with just 74 points in a three-points-for-a-win, 36-game league. Add on an extra four points (their average was 2.05 per game) to make it up to a 38-game season, and you’ve got a total of 78. No champion since then has finished on a points total (or point average) so low.
In fact, there have only been five occasions where the loser in the Old Firm race has not surpassed that mark. Each time it’s been Rangers, but only the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons come without the caveat of suffering a ten-point penalty due to impending financial oblivion or being managed by Graeme Murty.
Last Sunday’s results suggested a return to the natural order. If Hearts and Hibs are to keep this going, then the league struggles endured by Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard’s teams must continue.
Have a historically good season
No team outside of Celtic or Rangers in the three-points-for-a-win era has finished on 78 points or higher. The last team to do so - adjusting for current parameters - was Aberdeen in 1992/93. Their 27 wins and ten draws in a 44-game league (!!) would average out to 78 points now. Of course, neither Hearts nor Hibs would necessarily have to reach that total just to stay in the title race, but if you’re going to get supporters hopes up by extending such runs until the spring, then you may as well aim for the top.
The good news is that Hearts are currently on pace for 90 points, and Hibs 81. So they can be allowed a few more slip-ups yet...
Take points off the Old Firm
One regret Hearts had from the 1997/98 season was their consistent failure to trouble either Celtic or Rangers in league action. In eight games against the pair, the surprise contenders took only three points.
The good news for this season is they’ve already matched that total. Hibs have yet to play either team yet, though they should be encouraged by their efforts last term, as they equalled Celtic and bettered Rangers in their respective head-to-head battles.
It’s too difficult to try and produce an Old Firm level of consistency against the rest of the league, considering the wealth gap, and then allow them to take three points without breaking sweat. Aberdeen have provided the best example of this in recent seasons. Last year the Dons finished nine points behind Celtic, who were six points ahead in matches between them. In 2014-15 they were 17 points behind, having allowed Ronny Deila’s side to win every one of their encounters.
It’s easy to wonder whether Scottish football is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve been so conditioned over the past 25 years, and across history in general, to believe the champions at the end of any particular season will come from one half of the duopoly. Whether this is a conscious thought or not, it must seep into the minds of the players.
Hibs defender Paul Hanlon was quoted today as saying: “We have had good starts before, but not in terms of a title race. We had a good start under Yogi [John Hughes] and with Pat Fenlon we were top in November, but never spoken of as being in that race.”
The Hughes season he mentions saw Hibs go 1-0 up against Rangers on 27 December in what was a clash between two sides closely matched near the top of the league, and yet nobody seemed to be seriously suggesting Hibs (or Dundee United, who also started that campaign on fire) could properly challenge for a title.
That’s maybe why 2018/19 just feels a little bit different. There’s the friction between Rodgers and the Parkhead board, and the rookie manager mistakes Gerrard will invariably make. There’s a sense that an opening has been created.
Besides, are we really to believe that from now until Scottish football ceases to be that every single title will be won by either Celtic or Rangers? Someone, surely, is going to have one magical season where everything comes together and they’re able to put a sustained run strong enough to steal it?
If that’s to be the case, then why shouldn’t the collective members of the Tynecastle and Easter Road dressing rooms be looking to each other and asking: “If anybody is going to do it, then why not us?”