Derby draws are, for the most part, unsatisfying results. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful that I’ve ever been genuinely happy with.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to derive any kind of pleasure from a draw with your city rivals, there has to be some kind of notable feat involved; despite what past celebrations in the Roseburn Stand would have you believe, there is nothing remotely satisfying about a goalless draw.
You almost certainly have to come from behind, and the later the better, whether that’s with two goals in the last minute of injury time, equalising with only 10 men or a 40-yard screamer to preserve an unbeaten run.
Last Sunday’s draw at Easter Road just makes it into this category. Although we finished strongly and were good for the point in the end, Hibs will no doubt wonder how they didn’t have the win wrapped up long before Uche levelled things up in the 84th minute.
Just as we rued a number of good scoring opportunities before succumbing to defeat in the derby at Tynecastle a few weeks back, Hibs had arguably the better quality chances throughout the match, which they spurned to the eventual detriment of two points.
In the specific context of our season, it was only the second time we had picked up points from a losing position, so a draw could also be seen as a relatively positive result in that respect, especially when supporter confidence was so low beforehand.
Full disclosure: any flicker of confidence I had left in me prior to kick-off was extinguished as soon as I saw our starting line-up, and it’s at this stage that I would like to issue an unreserved apology to both Harry Cochrane and Connor Smith. Derbies can be frenetic affairs and given the mounting tension in the Hearts support these days, it seemed callous of Craig Levein to throw two inexperienced teenagers into the lions’ den.
On reflection, I’m not sure what I was so concerned about. Cochrane, for one, has tasted big game atmospheres on more than a few occasions already in his fledgling career: as well as two appearances apiece against Rangers and Celtic this season, he performed exceptionally well in the two derby wins at Tynecastle last season (setting up Steven Naismith’s winner in the second) and scored in the game that brought Celtic’s “Invincibles” run to a spectacular end. Sunday may have been a comparatively lower key performance from the 18-year old — which is understandable given his recent injury problems and lack of match practice — but it was no less assured.
Smith, meanwhile, appears to be cut from similar cloth. You’d forgive most youngsters for approaching their first professional start in a more tentative fashion, keeping it simple to calm any nerves and avoid confidence-sapping errors. It may be the untainted innocence of youth or the fact that he’s yet to be worn down by the weight of supporter expectations, but at no point did he look overawed by the occasion, settling into the game very early on with notable composure and self-assurance.
That’s not to say he over-complicated matters in a bid to impress but, like Cochrane, he clearly has belief in his own ability; his intelligence on the ball and awareness of the space around him are so instinctive that he rarely wasted a pass and often made himself available to team-mates, who themselves weren’t always alert to the option.
The maturity of Smith and Cochrane’s performances will not only have vindicated Levein’s decision to play them but also provide reassurance that he can rely on them in future games. By the same token, it should serve as a point of self-reflection for their more senior midfield colleagues, who will be under no illusions that their places in the team are certain in the weeks leading up to cup final day.
That particular penny appeared to have dropped with Oli Bozanic, who atoned for his woeful afternoon against Rangers the week before with an energetic appearance off the bench in place of a flagging Cochrane. Likewise, Ryan Edwards looks to have chosen the perfect time to undergo somewhat of a renaissance, having made his long-awaited Hearts debut to notable effect after nearly an entire season out in the cold.
Such was the surprising nature of Edwards’ appearance off the bench that only a cameo from Malaury Martin between now and the end of the season could eclipse it. Furthermore, with Peter Haring and Steven Naismith still major doubts for the cup final, what it also demonstrates is that places in the Hearts midfield are very much up for grabs. Before the derby, few fans would have envisaged the names Cochrane or Edwards as part of their prospective starting line-ups, but those players now find themselves in a situation where a string of good performances in the final three league games could propel them into Craig Levein’s plans for 25th May.
Too often this season we’ve seen the players (and Levein) offer up cliché-filled platitudes after poor results, only to witness repeat performances in the following games. Losing key men to long-term injuries was bad enough, but the lack of options those injuries left in certain positions may have had the unintended consequence of causing certain players — who had performed strongly in the opening months of the season — to feel safer in their positions, leading to complacency.
While our keepers have each been jettisoned for poor individual performances, a lack of depth in other areas — particularly midfield and up front — undoubtedly made it difficult to drop other sub-standard performers for any longer than the occasional game. Even then, those players would often appear off the bench.
Bozanic and Olly Lee are prime examples in this regard. Whereas earlier in the season, injuries meant that one (or both) would be almost guaranteed to feature each week, regardless of form, Levein now has the option of putting both on the bench, with the likes of Cochrane, Smith, Edwards and Andy Irving all ready and willing to take their places.
Going into a derby match, it may have seemed like a bold selection call for a manager in Levein’s precarious circumstances to make, but it may just inspire the right kind of reaction and create more intense competition for places that simply hasn’t existed for large chunks of the campaign.
As a result, three league games that would otherwise have been considered meaningless take on added significance for the players. For some of these guys, this could end up being their last opportunity — for others maybe their only opportunity — to play in a cup final. If that in itself doesn’t motivate them to put in the hard yards over the next three weeks to impress and justify their places in the starting line-up, their seats on the bench (or in the stand) at Hampden will be fully merited.