When Craig Thomson blew for full-time at Tynecastle on Sunday, all it would have taken was for Scott Wilson to play Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” through the PA system to convince me that I had been cast in a remake of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, such was the familiarity of the situation. Another derby, another anti-climax brought about by another underwhelming performance.
Now, before I go any further, a disclaimer. I am a big fan of Robbie Neilson and I still believe he is the right man to lead Hearts through this transitionary period. The resounding nature of our title win last season speaks for itself and with only four defeats from the 24 games played so far this season, our return to the Premiership has been as successful as we could have hoped for. As a result, he more than merits time and patience to build on what he’s achieved at the club in a relatively short space of time. Nevertheless, this doesn’t make him immune to criticism and as someone who has staunchly defended Neilson in the past, even I struggled to do so in the wake of another derby disappointment.
There has been plenty evidence of Neilson’s potential in the past 18 months to suggest he can go on to enjoy a successful career in football management. However, his record in big games has been continually called into question during that period and on Sunday’s evidence, you can see where folk are coming from. If the December clash with Celtic and our victory over Aberdeen in the previous round of the cup suggested a corner had been turned as far as our seemingly ‘negative’ approach to the bigger games was concerned, Sunday felt like a moment of regression. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily paint an entirely honest picture.
Last season, we found ourselves on the end of two pretty comprehensive defeats by Celtic in each cup competition and suffered a similar fate at the hands of Aberdeen in our first league encounter of this campaign. Since then, there has been an undeniably marked improvement in how the team has coped with these occasions. We have matched Celtic in both league meetings so far and — although a freak error at Pittodrie denied us a point — the cup tie against Aberdeen was one of the most convincing team performances of the season. Assuming these results were not mere blips, this upward trend suggests Neilson has gradually learned how to set the team up for the more testing fixtures, which makes his unconvincing and problematic derby record all the more baffling.
On the face of it, Neilson’s derby record last season may not make for altogether terrible reading, having only lost once in four meetings, however, a lot of the cracks in those games were papered over by isolated moments of brilliance. On every occasion, Hibs went a goal ahead, with the exception of the first game at Tynecastle where Liam Craig’s appalling penalty miss handed Hearts a lifeline they duly took advantage of. Of the four goals we scored against Hibs last season, one came from the penalty spot while the rest were opportunistic long-range efforts, the spectacular quality of which masked the mediocrity that had played out before.
It was a novelty, therefore, to go into the interval on Sunday two goals ahead, though how we found ourselves in that position was more a product of good fortune than design, after an uninspiring first half. Again, our lead came about courtesy of individual skill, firstly through Arnaud Djoum’s long-range screamer and then Sam Nicholson’s composed finish, both of which were aided by Hibs’ suspect defending. Considering one of the criticisms of Hearts this season has been the inability to find a second goal to kill games off, such a lead would have seemed comfortable in most situations.
On this occasion, however, there was always the uneasy feeling that a goal for Hibs would give them the belief to salvage something from the tie. When the teams emerged for the second half, therefore, the expectation was that Hearts would push for a third goal to put the tie beyond all doubt. Unfortunately, that third goal proved elusive and when Jason Cummings’ looping header halved the deficit with ten minutes remaining, the outcome seemed inevitable.
After the game, Robbie Neilson highlighted the injuries sustained by key players as a mitigating factor in Hearts’ second-half collapse.
“The injuries and the changes we had to make had an impact. We had a couple of guys carrying knocks. Nicholson and Miguel Pallardo were really struggling but, because we had to take Prince Buaben, Ozturk and Djoum off, we didn’t have the opportunity to change it. That had a little bit of a bearing on the game.”
Neilson is right to an extent. The injuries certainly forced his hand in terms of substitutions, none of which would have been made under normal circumstances. The introduction of Juwon Oshaniwa, for example, brought with it the usual sense of trepidation and although it was by no means the worst performance we’ve seen from him, his presence created palpable tension in the stands.
With Sam Nicholson physically struggling to provide adequate cover for the Nigerian, Hibs (to their credit) took full advantage of the situation and focused a greater deal of their attacking energy down that area of the pitch. Despite the best efforts of Blazej Augustyn to support his under-pressure team-mate, in what looked like a defender’s equivalent of whack-a-mole, Hibs’ relentless pressure eventually paid off.
If throwing away a two-goal lead at home to our closest rivals was a bitter pill to swallow, the feeling would not have been helped by the inexplicably positive spin Neilson applied to the situation in his post-match comments:
“We now have another derby, another money-spinner for the clubs, another big one for the fans. If we can get through that, it’s even better than winning it the first time.”
As media-savvy as Robbie Neilson has proven to be in his career so far, this is one occasion where I would accuse him of getting lost in his own diplomacy. Maybe I’m alone in this, but personally I prefer to see my team win at the first time of asking, especially when they’ve been ahead by two goals.
Secondly, at a time when ticket prices are a major talking point down south, the suggestion that a replay — and subsequent £28 charge — would somehow be welcomed with open arms by supporters smacks of ignorance. The club has benefited considerably from supporter generosity recently and nobody would begrudge that for a moment, but after such a deflating result for the fans, Neilson’s rhetoric was both poorly worded and badly timed.
At the time, there was also the small matter of injuries and suspensions to consider, having collected both in abundance over the past few weeks. Regardless of how supporters felt about the extra games, there seemed to be doubts as to whether or not the team would be in adequate shape to cope with their increasingly busy calendar.
A midweek trip up to Dingwall without three of your first-choice backline, for example, did not exactly whet the appetite. The 3–0 win, therefore, was a pleasant surprise, with a patched-up defence of Paterson, Oshaniwa, McGhee, and debutant John Souttar withstanding heavy Ross County pressure to record an unlikely (but nonetheless impressive) clean sheet. Afterwards, Robbie Neilson heaped praise on his centre back pairing:
“I’m really pleased at the performance. We had two young centre backs in Jordan McGhee and John Souttar. We had Paterson, Nicholson, Zanatta coming on, Liam Smith, all young kids. For McGhee and Souttar to play against two experienced players in Goodwillie and Boyce I thought they played really well and dealt with the physicality of it.”
At the other end, it was pleasing to see Jamie Walker make his first start after returning from injury, although reports that he had scored our first goal were quashed by the TV footage that emerged later. Meanwhile, having already been written off for failing to produce a derby debut of De Vries proportions, Abiola Dauda offered the mouth breathers an olive branch in the form of two well-struck goals from off the bench on his league debut, emulating Genero Zeefuik’s efforts last season. After being given little to no service on Sunday in what must have been a confidence-draining home debut, it was important that Dauda picked himself up quickly and this brace will have done wonders for in that respect. As Neilson said after the game:
“He’s a top player, there’s no doubt about that, and I’m really pleased to get him. I didn’t want to start him today because he has such a hard game at the weekend but I knew if we got him on for 30 minutes he’d show his quality.”
1A huge result in the context of consolidating third place and with his fringe players stepping up to the mark in such testing circumstances, Neilson will have been given plenty food for thought ahead of Saturday’s league game against Partick, where Hearts will look to record their second straight league win for the first time since 7th November.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on February 10, 2016.