In a game which they had to win, for guaranteeing tribal pride as much as gaining three key points, Hibernian fell short. Short in effort, short in quality – save for Stevie Mallan’s fantastic opener – and woefully short in ideas. They lost to a Hearts side which had also been under close scrutiny before kick-off, when the Edinburgh rivals occupied two of the bottom three spots in the Scottish Premier League. The team from Tynecastle now have their first win of the season, with Craig Levein’s job safe for a little while at least. Hibs, by contrast, have not tasted victory in the league since the opening day, and Paul Heckingbottom is looking increasingly close to the sack.
Following Mallan’s 30-yard hit into the top corner and a scrappy equaliser from Uche Ikpeazu, the game at Easter Road was won in the 83rd minute by 17-year old Hearts defender Aaron Hickey, scoring a first professional goal in unforgettable circumstances. After the final whistle, there was a swift exodus from home fans, leaving three quarters of the ground empty. In the fourth, the eye could hardly spot a spare seat, as the away faithful stayed to cheer their heroes. Levein can consider himself somewhat vindicated, while things are only getting worse for his Hibs counterpart.
There was one change for Hibs and four for Hearts from their previous games, with both sides electing to switch goalkeeper. Heckingbottom handed home debuts to new signings Jason Naismith and Melker Hallberg, neither marking their first Edinburgh derby with an especially distinguished performance. Following a minute’s applause for the late Fernando Ricksen, formerly of Rangers, the match began with the home team sticking to a long-ball game which failed to penetrate the Hearts defence. By contrast, the Gorgie outfit demonstrated a more fluid passing style, exposing flaws in the green team’s backline as Ikpeazu surged through on three minutes, only to be flagged for offside. Ikpeazu continued to cause problems, his potent combination of speed and strength proving a bruising puzzle for the Hibs centre backs to solve.
Mallan was Hibs’s best player in the opening exchanges, first having a shot blocked by Glenn Whelan and then firing over with a speculative volley from way out on the right. One pre-match banner had read ‘Where is the player that would not dare to fight for Hibernian?’, but this thinly-veiled attack was not convincingly answered by the home players, who looked out-of-sorts as Sean Clare and Jake Mulraney missed half-chances for Hearts. Half chances made way for real chances on forty minutes, as the irrepressible Ikpeazu slid the ball into the net, albeit after another raising of the offside flag. Half-time arrived in a game full of tension, as both teams looked capable of scoring and vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Two minutes into the second half, the scoring was opened by a moment of brilliance, as Mallan shot from range when no opportunity seemed forthcoming. Suddenly, a nervy crowd was bouncing, banging drums, and gleefully directing the inevitable refrain, “You’re getting sacked in the morning” at the beleaguered Hearts coach. A goal the other way and the travelling Jambos could be forgiven for chanting the same at Heckingbottom. One playful section of the ground sang, “Craig Levein, we want you to stay.” Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the away end.
Both sides came close to scoring in the ensuing minutes, with Hallberg squandering a great chance for Hibs on 63 minutes, as he lashed high and wide from ten yards out. The 70th minute brought an equaliser, less picturesque than the goal before it, as Ikpeazu fired through a herd of bodies from a corner, Hibs goalie Chris Maxwell diving too late to stop the ball. The noise was now concentrated in the away corner, the momentum firmly with the visitors. Ryotaro Meshino, on loan from Manchester City, fired just over from twenty yards as Hearts sought to punish a shaky back four.
This pressure was rewarded with seven minutes to go, as Hickey’s long range effort deflected off Josh Vela and looped over a helpless Maxwell, making it 2-1 to the team known as the Jam Tarts. Smug warbles of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” permeated the Easter Road atmosphere once again, only this time Heckingbottom was the unlucky target. Nowhere in all of sport is schadenfreude more inescapable than a derby fixture.
Hibs did well to respond, winning two corners in quick succession as Naismith headed agonisingly over the bar. Hearts’s Joel Castro Pereira saved well from Glenn Middleton as the clock ticked down to 90 minutes, stopping Scott Allan’s stinging drive soon afterwards. Christian Doidge poked in what initially seemed to be a stoppage time leveller, only for the Hibs fans’ ecstasy to be cut short by referee John Beaton’s call. No goal: foul on the keeper. Full time came, and with it a prolonged roar from the Hearts supporters who had made the cross-city trip. Their team had moved off the bottom of the table and won for the first time in twelve league matches, stretching back to the end of last season.
Hibs now sit second bottom, and their manager acknowledged after the game that there is “no hiding place” either for him or his charges. Craig Levein was in a better mood, calm but visibly relieved. as he expressed empathy for his opposite number in the home dugout. His players clearly support him, with Ikpeazu admitting that Levein “deserves better” than what his team have provided up until now. Heckingbottom’s players said similar about their coach, but somehow it felt emptier. He has weathered unpopular opinion before in his managerial career, but now he would do well to listen to the Leith side’s fanbase. Heckingbottom should still be in charge come sunrise, but perhaps not for long after.
Image: Rob Lownie