Sunday, April 03, 2011

SPL Today: Hibs v Hearts

Scottish football blog Hibs
Colin Calderwood recently had the pleasure of meeting me for the first time.

Truth be told, I’d possibly over indulged.

Drink beer and wine you'll feel fine. But when you drink wine and beer you'll feel queer.

Quite.

So my attempts to congratulate him on Hibs’ recent run of form possibly sounded a little like:

“See me, Col, I’m a bit pished.”

But he’s a very approachable chap, smiled benignly and said that he had much work still to do.

And indeed he does.

His tenure at Hibs has been short but not without challenges. He took over a failing team and it continued to fail.

Faced with both a bleak league table and a squad that clearly did not impress him, he then had to use the transfer window to halt a decline that was beginning to look perilously like a manifesto for relegation.

He pulled that off. Hibs have won five of their last six games, only a draw at St Johnstone denying them 18 points from 18.

That’s impressive. More so when we consider that this has been done with a team that bears little resemblance to the one John Hughes started the season with.

It’s quite unusual in Scottish football for a manager to scrape together such a transformation in the January transfer window. It’s unheard of at Easter Road.

So Calderwood has laid aside his faltering start, begun to sweep out the mess left by his predecessor and taken some steps towards convincing the fans that here is a manager who can prosper at a club that has recently shown a remarkable intolerance to any perceived weaknesses in the dugout.

As a Hibs fan all of this heartens me.

And that should mean I’m feeling reasonably confident about today’s derby.

Well, to an extent.

Partly my trepidation comes from too much experience of Hearts-ache. Partly it’s because I am, by nature, predisposed to take a bleak view of the world and everyone and everything that’s in it.

Those are general, lasting reasons for a sense of pre-derby misgiving.

There are also more pressing concerns for this afternoon.

The fact that Hibs haven’t played a competitive game since March 5th means, at the very least, they are going into this one short of match practice or any real guide to their form. That could either be a good thing or a bad thing.

The six game undefeated run has been welcome, it’s been enjoyable and calmed talk of a club in crisis.

But Kilmarnock are the highest placed side to have been beaten. There’s been no test against the Old Firm, no measure of progress against a form team like Dundee United.

A new look side has done well to win so many games as they searched for cohesion and understanding in the squad.

Yet even taking into account the slight halt to Hearts’ progress as they find themselves bogged down in the no man’s land of third place, a derby represents a completely different challenge for Hibs.

They could well prove up to that task but it remains something of a step into the unknown.

Hearts have also won the last four of these clashes and are now undefeated in six. We have to go back to Derek Riordan’s late penalty at Tynecastle in May 2009 for the last Hibs win.

All of which serves to dampen my ardour for proceedings. And yet...

Certainly I’d be disappointed and a touch surprised if Hibs appear as devoid of intent and purpose as they have done in the previous two clashes this season.

This is, for all that they’re relatively untested, a Hibs team with more edge, more thrust and an added stomach for the fight. Hearts should find more resistance as they attempt to impose themselves on Easter Road.

In Richie Towell and Callum Booth the home side have full backs who are capable of giving Hearts’ midfielders and defence pause for thought. Akpo Sodje gives an added dimension in attack, Derek Riordan retains a certain enigmatic quality.

Victor Palsson’s injury in Iceland’s under-21 clash against England is a concern. He’s become a combative component of a midfield that Calderwood has transformed into a more formidable unit. Here’s a 19 year old who does not look like an Edinburgh derby would give him any reason to be fazed.

It’s a different Hibs, a better Hibs.

All of this leaves me searching for a prediction. Into the mix I must throw Hibs’ improvement, Hearts’ slight slips, Hibs’ inactivity, my own pessimism, Hibs’ new faces and the added pressures and dig of a derby clash.

Which, when processed, means?

I really don’t know. I expect this one to be close. I don’t expect Hearts to be able to dictate the way they did earlier in the season.

These are games that rarely throw up treats for the neutral footballing aesthete. If the sides are more evenly matched then we might find the game turning on an individual contribution, be it a flash of brilliance, an honest mistake or a moment of madness.

And that can make a game something of a lottery.

Which drags me inexorably towards predicting a draw. With the proviso that either team could sneak this one by the odd goal.

Apologies if that’s about as decisive as a tactics talk from John Hughes. But there we have it.

I’m feeling sick with nerves already.