Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 3 January 2010 - Easter Road
It was a curious build up to the Edinburgh New Year Derby of 2010. For much of season 2009-10, Hibernian have been the team from Scotland’s capital city who have impressed. Up to Christmas, they had embarked on an unbeaten run of twelve games in the SPL and were tucked in behind the Old Firm in the league table with some wishful thinkers in Leith believing John Hughes’ men could mount a serious attempt to become the first team to split the Glasgow pair since city rivals Hearts did it four years ago. Hearts, on the other hand, had struggled all season. When Celtic visited Gorgie the week before Christmas no one could possibly see anything other than a victory for Tony Mowbray’s side - which would set up a basement battle between Hearts and Falkirk on Boxing Day. Some gloating Hibees were quick to point out that Hearts would go into the New Year Derby at Easter Road in bottom place in the SPL. However, results during December were to prove that nothing, as if Scots ever needed to be told, is certain in football.
Hearts burst many a fixed-odds coupon by defeating Celtic 2-1 five days before Christmas. Although they were helped by the dismissal of Celtic defender Gary Caldwell in the first half, Hearts defended robustly and secured a precious three points in the most unlikely of circumstances. Six days later Hearts recorded a rare victory at The Falkirk Stadium and followed this up with another hard fought single goal win against Motherwell at Tynecastle the day before Hogmanay. Suddenly, the talk was not of Hearts fighting relegation but targeting the managerless and free-falling Dundee United in fourth place.
Hibernian, meanwhile, fancied their chances of defeating Rangers at Easter Road two days after Christmas, a prospect enhanced when Anthony Stokes gave the home side the lead after just twelve seconds. However, Rangers stormed back and thrashed John Hughes’ side 4-1 to leave an air of deflation in Leith. To the extent that some Hibs fans were not as confident as before about victory over their city rivals while Hearts fans, until recently harbouring fears about the game, were beginning to look forward.
Heavy snow in Scotland’s capital city on the eve of the game caused concern. The Easter Road pitch was fine but the area surrounding the stadium was covered in snow and ice. However, common sense prevailed the game went ahead as planned. Graeme Smith made his debut for Hibernian, the former Motherwell goalkeeper being preferred to the error-prone Yves Ma-Kalambay. If that was something of a surprise for Hibs fans it was nothing to what was in store for the visiting support. With the Thomsons - Jason and Craig - both injured and Eggert Jonsson required for central defence, the right back berth was given to the forgotten man of Tynecastle - Marius Cinikas who made his first appearance in a maroon shirt since joining on loan from FC Kaunas in August.
It wasn’t a huge surprise there was little finesse in this latest Edinburgh derby. However, it was an open game with both sides keen to get forward. There was certainly no shortage of commitment, which is something one shouldn’t have to go looking in any case, but fifty-fifty balls were contested with enough vigour to warm even the most cynical on a bitterly cold Edinburgh afternoon. The first real chance fell to Hearts when Michael Stewart found himself in space on the edge of the Hibs penalty box. He opted to pass to Gordon Smith rather than have a shot himself but the youngster lacked composure and the chance was gone. At the other end, Hibs top scorer Anthony Stokes wasted arguably an even better chance when he screwed the ball wide after a long ball from Riordan fell at his feet. With half-time beckoning and the game goalless, Hearts took the lead. Christian Nade, of all people, held the ball up well and passed to Palazuelos whose cross was met on the volley by Smith whose first time effort flew past his namesake in the Hibs goal from around eighteen yards. Hearts ahead at the interval thanks to a goal from a name you normally associate with Hibernian…
After a couple of early chances for the visitors in the second half, it was Hibernian who drew level nine minutes into the second period. Derek Riordan was given the freedom of Leith to enable him to cross for Stokes to head the equaliser. Shortly afterwards with tempers rising, Darren McCormack and Ruben Palazuelos were ordered off by referee Charlie Richmond after appearing to head butt each other. Hibernian had chances near the end to win the game through Riordan and Ian Murray but they were passed up.
The gamed ended 1-1, a result that was not particularly satisfying for either team but was a fair reflection on the ninety minutes. Hibernian have now gone six Edinburgh derby league games unbeaten while Hearts extended their unbeaten run in the SPL to five games. It wasn’t pretty to watch, it wasn’t the most skilful game of football you’ll ever see but that’s Scottish football for you in 2010.
For all that they are the perceived purveyors of ‘flair football’, there was precious little of that on show from Hibernian. For much of the game, certainly, after McCormack was red-carded, they seemed to rely on the long ball to the somewhat isolated figure of Anthony Stokes. Zemmama faded from the game and the home team seemed unable to alter their game plan accordingly. John Hughes has had a decent season thus far as Hibernian manager but against Hearts his team seemed one-dimensional.
As far as Hearts are concerned, a point at Easter Road wasn’t a bad thing, particularly given the Edinburgh teams’ respective league positions. However, the soap opera that is Heart of Midlothian FC would appear to be devising another plot. Owner Vladimir Romanov clearly doesn’t rate the two strikers - Steven MacLean and Izale Macleod - manager Csaba Laszlo identified as being the solution to his team’s chronic goalscoring problem and the chances of either player coming to Tynecastle after their trial periods seems remote. Hence Laszlo appearing to spit out the dummy by throwing in eighteen year old Gordon Smith for his full league debut. Yet Romanov will surely point to the youngster’s finely taken goal as evidence he was right. Whether Laszlo sees this as his authority being undermined is open to debate.
Somewhat predictably, 2010 has begun with honours shared in Auld Reekie - but there is unfinished business for both capital sides in the months ahead.