Bully For You, Mr McInnes
Before Aberdeen turned up at Tynecastle last weekend, a lot had been made of Hearts’ cup record in years ending with six. The trend is definitely a peculiar one and makes for interesting reading, but as someone who isn’t hugely superstitious or a great believer in fate, I find the reference to it a little bit…well…Hibs.
Some of you may well remember the various tweets and news articles prior to the 2012 final citing mathematical equations and astrological theories that pointed to a nailed-on Hibs victory. We all know how those turned out. In the end, if Hearts are to lift the Scottish Cup this season, it will be as a result of their performances on the pitch, and if the players can replicate the hard work and commitment they showed to send Aberdeen out of the competition, they will give themselves every chance of success.
In terms of team news, the main surprise prior to kick-off last Saturday was Neilson’s decision to shuffle his back line. Although his performances have been less than convincing in his past few appearances, it seemed as though Juwon Oshaniwa had Robbie Neilson’s backing for at least the foreseeable future. It was interesting, therefore, to see neither Oshaniwa nor Jordan McGhee deployed in the role and Igor Rossi returning to the position he occupied at the start of the season.
Rossi’s inclusion at the expense of the two more regular left backs was the kind of bold call many had believed Neilson to be incapable of making, due to his perceived loyalty towards supposedly under-performing players. In the end, it turned out to be an incredibly effective one. Although his contribution on the left lacked the sort of marauding attacking support usually offered by McGhee and Oshaniwa, the Brazilian more than made up for it with the reassuring defensive presence he offered behind Sam Nicholson.
Rossi is arguably our signing of the season so far, not only for his consistency, but also for his physical dominance and aerial ability, traits he has in common with defensive colleagues Paterson, Ozturk and Augustyn. This was the first time we had seen all four players occupying the back line since the opening day of the season against St Johnstone, when the lack of familiarity and harmony between them was exposed by the three soft goals they shipped.
Their performance as a unit against Aberdeen, however, was night and day in comparison, with Aberdeen’s usually-potent attacking threat stifled from the first minute. Supporters will hope, therefore, that Neilson knows a good thing when he sees it and sticks with this back four for the foreseeable future, starting with this afternoon’s game against Motherwell. As former Hearts defender Dave McPherson said earlier in the week:
“What you’ve got there is quite a strong, physical defence but also quite athletic. Callum [Paterson] gets forward well from the right-back area, for example. Unless there are injuries or something else, then I’d be sticking by the defence. Why change it when you come away with a clean sheet? The back four looked solid and didn’t look like losing a goal on Saturday, so I think he’d be silly to change it at the moment.”
Having dominated the previous two meetings this season, the visitors were clearly rattled by their inability to get a foothold in this game and their frustration threatened to boil over on a few occasions, most notably when Adam Rooney barged Augustyn to the deck after seeing another attack snuffed out. Saying that, such incidents are always to be expected in the heat of such an intense cup tie.
What was more surprising, however, was the overblown, petulant reaction from Derek McInnes in the aftermath of the game, with the Dons boss seemingly more interested in blaming Hearts, rather than his own players, for their cup exit. Since then, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of media focus on Hearts as a “big physical team” and, bizarrely enough, the vast majority of it seems to have been spun in a particularly negative fashion.
First of all, the assessment is completely misguided. Aside from the defence, there are no noticeably big players in this Hearts team. Secondly, the recent reporting seems to suggest that a physical approach to a contact sport is somehow a bad thing. A couple of seasons ago, we witnessed our young inexperienced players being outmuscled on a weekly basis, struggling to compete on a physical level with their opponents, which ultimately led to relegation. Back then, Hearts were a mere insignificance to many teams. After all, when you can brush a team aside with relative ease, you have no cause for complaint.
This season, by contrast, we have players who have demonstrated they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league and win the key physical battles, which naturally rankles with the likes of McInnes, whose efforts to discredit Neilson’s team were no more than the bitter spluttering of a loser. Personally, if this is the approach that wins games for Hearts in future, I’m all for it. Thankfully, the Hearts head coach seems in no hurry to change that style, citing the players’ own development as the main reasoning behind it:
“I think athleticism is a very good thing. You need to have guys who are strong and also guys who have that technical ability. At the start of last season we played Man City and I looked at their players and thought ‘if our guys want to get to that level then they have to have guys that they compete against in training’. We played Everton this summer and it was the same again. It really opens your eyes to the physicality and athleticism you do need if you want guys to go to the top level.”
Speaking of the development of our own players, another pleasing aspect of Saturday’s cup-tie was Neilson’s decision to bring on Jordan McGhee in the closing stages. Hearts fans would have been forgiven for wincing slightly as the youngster entered the fray at a point when Aberdeen were piling on the pressure, especially given his recent history in Aberdeen fixtures. Thankfully for all concerned, the final minutes went by without a hitch. Although this substitution turned out to be a fairly minor footnote in the context of the game itself, it was a shrewd piece of man management from the head coach and will hopefully have allowed the player to shake off any remaining demons as he looks to force his way back into the side.
Having done well to dump one of the pre-tournament favourites from the competition, many would have been hoping for a slightly kinder draw in the next round: a home tie against a lower league minnow for example. It was only as I watched draw unfold on Monday that I started to think ‘be careful what you wish for’ when it emerged the only teams left in the pot were ourselves and our city rivals. I have to confess that my initial reaction was laced with nervousness, although I have since embraced it.
As amusing as it was to leave Hibs floundering in the Championship for another season, no amount of schadenfreude has been able to fill the massive Edinburgh derby-shaped hole in our season. Whereas supporters are usually given three or four opportunities a year to secure derby bragging, this cup tie represents the only chance to do so this season, which adds considerable spice to the spectacle. I’ve never been one to tempt fate with pre-derby predictions, and although Hearts will almost certainly be favourites heading into the tie, Alan Stubbs’ Hibs players will see this as an ideal opportunity to test their Premiership credentials ahead of a potential promotion playoff at the end of the season.
For that reason, it would be naïve to treat them lightly. Fortunately, if our recent results against Celtic and Aberdeen are anything to go, it looks as though Robbie Neilson is now approaching the “big games” in a more positive manner. If this new “physical” approach is successful in the coming weeks, starting with this afternoon’s winnable game against Motherwell, it should be enough to see us into the quarter-final draw in February, regardless of what that age-old cliché says about form on derby day.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on January 16, 2016.