Yesterday was my 30th birthday and as I embark on my fourth decade, I am only now starting to realise exactly what my Hibs-supporting friends must have being going through for the vast majority of the past 30 years.
The life of a Hearts fan my age has, at least as far as derby matches are concerned, been a relatively charmed one. In the 112 competitive derbies which have been played since I was born, only 26 of those have ended in a Hearts defeat (0.86 derby defeats per year) compared to the 47 that ended in victory (1.6 a year).
Derby bragging rights are a valuable commodity in Edinburgh and although Hearts supporters have enjoyed the lion’s share of those over the years, four of the 26 defeats we’ve suffered to Hibs have come in our current winless run which started back in October 2014. Barring a fairly barren spell when we recorded only one win in 12 between 1998 and 2001, this (and I say this in the faintest of whispers) is the most dominant I’ve known Hibs to be in this fixture.
It’s a touchy subject for the maroon half of the city, but even the most staunch, partisan Jambo would struggle to deny that the pendulum has well and truly swung towards Easter Road. However, what is perhaps most galling for Hearts fans is the fact that Hibs have enjoyed the majority of their recent derby superiority while languishing in the league below, circumstances not too dissimilar to their spell of dominance between 1998 and 2001, when they had also spent time rebuilding in the second tier.
Maybe that’s pure coincidence, maybe they felt they had more of a point to prove against us, maybe we underestimated them while overestimating our own strengths. Or maybe it’s all of the above. Certainly in last year’s cup exit under Ian Cathro, the players’ mediocre, lackadaisical performances suggested many of them — having only been in Edinburgh for a month — had either failed to grasp the magnitude of the fixture or saw the result as a foregone conclusion in light of Hibs’ lower league status.
And therein lies the crux of the issue. The chopping and changing of personnel at Tynecastle over the past few seasons has not helped in the slightest. Whereas Hibs have retained the same core unit of players from their three Championship campaigns, Hearts — with the exception of a few players here and there — have assembled a new squad every season.
In the period since they dropped down to the Championship, this group of Hibs players have fought alongside each other in several derbies, become increasingly battle-hardened with each contest and learned exactly what is required to get a result, while a staggeringly large number of Hearts players have gone into the same fixtures as relative derby novices.
On Tuesday, only three of our starting line-up had experienced an Edinburgh Derby compared to eight on the opposite side; in the first cup tie between the sides last season, four Hearts players had previous experience of the fixture compared to nine of their opponents. That is by no means an excuse for professional footballers turning in the kind of meek performances we’ve endured from Hearts in the past few years, but it’s hard to rule it out as a contributory factor.
There was, however, a modicum of solace to be drawn from a slightly more determined effort in the Hearts ranks on Tuesday night. Don’t get me wrong, it was still nowhere near the standard required and we were still very much second best in every department but there were signs — just as there have been throughout this opening round of fixtures — that Craig Levein has the tools at his disposal to turn things around like he also did in the early 2000s.
The difference this time, of course, is that Levein is rectifying a mess that he contributed to in the first place. A consistent, settled squad will therefore be paramount to any turnaround in the short-term and upgrades in certain areas will be required come January.
Looking beyond this season, the promising new generation of academy prospects currently growing up at the club offers hope that better times (and more inspired derby fortunes) are to come. The fact that Levein lamented his own decision not to start 16-year old Harry Cochrane, whose second half efforts put some of his more experienced team-mates to shame, should offer some reassurance in that respect.
As disappointing as our recent derby record has been, it should not detract from what has been a fairly promising return from our opening round of fixtures. The Heart of Midlothian roadshow, which has stopped off at all but two Premiership grounds the past three months, finally comes to an end on Saturday when Rangers arrive at Murrayfield, kicking off a two month-long run of home games.
After playing nine of our first 11 games on the road, the post-tour debrief paints a relatively positive picture.
The last time I wrote anything, the club was still in the process of looking for Ian Cathro’s successor and interim coach Jon Daly was staking his own claim for the position with a win and a draw away to Kilmarnock and Rangers respectively.
Had he taken three points from the trip to Motherwell, he may well have landed the role on a permanent basis. As it happens, that 2–1 defeat at Fir Park stands as one of only a few genuinely poor results we’ve had so far this season, the other two coming in a similar reverse at the hands of Dundee and then the derby defeat.
Although the latter two can be attributed to Levein, he deserves credit for steadying the ship and guiding us through the choppy early-season waters relatively unscathed. Having played only twice “at home”, we find ourselves only a point behind the top six with a record of W4 D3 L4, which is roughly where I would have expected us to be.
Seventh place in the table may not feel like much to be positive about, but comparing our season so far against the equivalent fixtures last year, we actually find ourselves four points up, with gains made at home to Aberdeen and St Johnstone adding to the extra points taken from Govan, Kilmarnock and Dingwall.
The only games in which we’ve underperformed in comparison are Motherwell (where we won twice last season), Partick (who we beat in last season’s first trip to Firhill) and Hibs (if regarded as a direct swap for relegated Inverness where we drew). The Dens Park result was the same, but no less disappointing.
With a mouth-watering run of home games ahead, the opportunity is there for Hearts to build on the stable foundations laid in the first 11 matches and gather the necessary momentum to climb further up the table. Manager-less Rangers, a club seemingly intent on outdoing us in the disarray stakes, are first up tomorrow afternoon. A win would go a long way to restoring some of the faith that we lost in Leith.