Hearts and Hibs: Oh, how fortunes have flipped – and is the bottle there for it to change again

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Andy Halliday celebrates with Alex Cochrane after scoring to make it 1-1 during a cinch Premiership match between Hearts and Hibs.

While Hearts were deservedly wrapping up third place in the Premiership, with five games in hand, Hibs were counting the cost of their own failures as they were cast out of the top six.

They now face a nervy and unsatisfying end to a season, battling to steer clear of the play-off drama rather than tussling for another shot at European action.

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Oh, how fortunes have flipped.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson and Barrie McKay.

Last year, Hearts were booking promotion from the second tier and Hibs were the side finishing best of the rest in the league above. Now Robbie Neilson’s men sit 16 points ahead of fourth-placed Dundee United and 19 in front of their Leith foes, uncatchable and, on this evidence, pretty unflappable.

If they can make it two derby wins out of two, when they face Shaun Maloney’s men at Hampden next week, they will move one step closer to bettering Hibs efforts last term, when third place came with lengthy cup runs but no silverware. They will also be guaranteed European group-stage football next term.

And, for them, having reiterated their superiority with their 3-1 victory at Tynecastle, it is now about tangible rewards.

If there was plenty at stake as the teams met for what will now be their third and final league derby of the league campaign, next week is now a do or die affair – the chance for Hibs to try to make amends for this season, and the opportunity for Hearts to right an even more historical wrong, while also rubbing salt in their neighbours’ wounds.

Stephen Kingsley scores to make it 2-1 to Hearts.

Hibs opened the scoring when Harry Clarke made the most of a quick turnover and played the ball forward to Drey Wright. The Englishman had started in place of Sylvester Jasper and cut inside before unleashing a strike. It appeared to take a deflection on the way past Craig Gordon but no-one in green and white was too bothered by who got the final touch. It was the ideal start.

Previewing the match, Hibs boss Maloney had praised his team’s performance in the previous head-to-head, hailing their competitiveness. But that was less evident in this one, despite it being the most basic requirement.

With so much at stake and having thrown away countless chances to secure a top-six spot in recent weeks, they needed a win to guarantee them a place among the elite. But if they had the desire, it flickered and dimmed in far too many of them the longer the match went on, as they failed to match Hearts’ greater desire, ability and steely resolve.

While Hearts were foiled when Nathaniel Atkinson’s header came back off the upright, they weathered the Hibs storm and their visitors soon ran out of ideas and puff as the momentum began to shift.

Barrie McKay’s mercurial vision and execution helped and while the home side lacked the midfield pace and dynamism offered when Cammy Devlin and Beni Baningime are fit, and the backline looked less assured then usual, they dug in and competed, finally settling into the game and gaining to foothold.

While Hibs hoped, Hearts believed. And with good reason.

McKay sent Ellis Simms clear with a delightful through ball, but his dink over goalkeeper Matt Macey trundled just wide of the post. But soon after, McKay, who has signed a new three-year deal, sent in the cross which Atkinson almost converted.

However, a strike from Andy Halliday on the stroke of half-time, after Ellis Simms threaded through the perfect pass, leveled the score and Hibs were left reeling from a quick one-two when Hearts doubled their tally two minutes into the second half, when Peter Haring’s cross was knocked home by Stephen Kingsley.

Halliday scored his second in the 58th minute and at that stage it looked like it could be a mauling as he ran onto a McKay pass and slotted home.

The Hibs manager tried everything he could in terms of substitutions but not enough of the men in his team seemed to understand the need to deliver.

While there have been many derby fightbacks over the years – Hibs’ most notable in recent years came en route to their 2016 Scottish Cup win – it never looked likely in this one as the minutes ebbed away and Hearts totally dominated.

That 2016 cup run damaged Hearts boss Robbie Neilson’s standing with an element of the Jambos support and no matter what else he has delivered in the meantime, it lingers in the background, but next weekend gives him a chance to seek revenge and leave Hibs picking through the ashes of their season. And, make no mistake, it will take a heck of a lot of bottle for Hibs to bounce back from this one, with even their manager acknowledging that.

In 2016 they bounced back from League Cup disappointment and play-off misery to salvage something remarkable.

And, Hampden is a very different stage. Hibs will welcome back Ryan Porteous for next week’s encounter but Hearts expect to have Cammy Devlin bustling about the midfield.

This one came too soon for the little Aussie but he was out on the pitch during the warm up, taking it all in.

No-one can doubt both Porteous and Devlin are fighters but their teams’ seasons will ultimately be defined by how many of them show up around them. In that regard, Hearts definitely seem to have the edge.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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