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[D Riordan 22]
12 of 025 Paul Hartley 55 L SPL A

Home boys have minds set on derby destruction

Moira Gordon

NO-ONE likes a bully, especially at Easter Road and particularly after the opening capital derby of the season.

That day Hearts seemed to once again underline the belief that at times size does matter - literally too strong for their visitors, establishing an unassailable 2-0 lead before Derek Riordan netted his consolation effort. Hibs concede they were out-muscled that day but insist they were not out-played.

"I think they bullied us in that first game and they’re definitely up there as one of the most physical teams I’ve played against," says David Murphy, who, having played in at least half a dozen derbies south of the Border, tasted his first derby defeat at Tynecastle that day.

The left-back isn’t one of the lightweight members of the squad but he maintains that on the day he and his team-mates allowed their rivals to power their way to victory.

But like a group of playground victims who have been put through a course of self- defence lessons, the Hibs kids are far from intimidated by the thought of their next face-to-face, today in Leith. Attack, they have discovered with captivating consequences this term, can be the best form of defence and while they expect Hearts’ bulk to still prove troublesome, this time they are determined to use their own strengths as a means of combating it.

"They’ll still be physically strong and I think most of the lads here are willing to put their foot in where it hurts," says Murphy, but the 20-year-old believes that the presence of John Robertson in the opposing dug-out may aid the cause given that he has placed a greater emphasis on the technical rather than the physical since occupying the Tynecastle hotseat.

"They’ve got some big, strong lads but I think they will play a lot more football. That’s the way football should be played, derby or no derby, you should play football but if that’s not the case then I think we’ve got to stand up for ourselves and not be rolled over. I don’t think we will be rolled over this time."

By sticking to their own gameplan and taking on board lessons learned, Hibs have actually managed to avoid being totally steamrollered by anyone. At the same stage of the season last year, Hibs had won just six games, this term they have almost doubled that. The points tally after 20 games was 22, leaving them in eighth place and just three points off second-bottom. This year they have a far more healthy 36 points and sit third, winning plaudits with ease.

While the upturn in fortunes is notable, what has been more impressive is the dazzling way they have managed it. The individual flair so many of the youngsters possess has been awarded freedom to breathe and, allied to greater cohesion and a more watertight defence, they have played the kind of football which sees players dribble and supporters drool.

The acid test, though, is whether they have found a style that can usurp Hearts. For so long their Gorgie adversaries have had the Indian sign over them, snatching victory, or at the very least draws, from the jaws of defeat. The manner of those triumphs has rendered them all the more unpalatable for the Hibs fans. But they simply reflected a trend. Last year it wasn’t just Hearts who caused last-gasp distress as too many points were dropped throughout a campaign that would have fared so much better had games lasted 80 minutes instead of 90.

"Hopefully we’ve overcome that this year," says Mowbray. "We’ve had one derby game [in the league] and we didn’t get the right result but there was the 4-4 game with Dundee when lessons were learned. There’s since been many occasions when we’ve managed to hang on to leads and see out games. In any game of football, when a team is chasing it then they gamble men forward. What we have been learning to do is cope with that overload of players up against you sometimes and hurt teams the other way by hitting them on the counter-attack, so now we don’t mind too much if teams want to gamble against us and our game against Dundee United was a good example of a team chasing something at the death and they actually lost goals and could have lost more.

"That’s the pleasing thing for me, they are learning the tactical side of the game and when they need to defend and how they break away from teams pressing up on them."

So the message seems to now be come and have a go if you think you’re brave enough. If Hearts are losing and the minutes are ebbing away, then whether it’s considered bravery, stupidity or recognised as the solitary option, they will have to have a go. They may settle for a draw but defeat would be too costly, psychologically and in terms of points. A win for Hibs will allow them to establish a 12-point gap. With a game in hand and half the season remaining, Hearts could still claw back the deficit but mentally it would be a blow to a team still not firing on all cylinders and unsettled by contractual issues.

Which is why this derby carries such weight. It is the only concern for Mowbray, who recognises the fans’ desire to see his charges back up their current league form with derby-day bragging rights, but while he doesn’t want the importance of the occasion to by-pass them, he also doesn’t want it to distract them.

"There have been lots of derbies when one team or the other has forgotten to play because they got embroiled in what’s at stake, and it’s easy to do because players are surrounded by the supporters every day and are well aware of the tension in the community - because people have been telling them for the last two weeks they need to win.

"So it’s important for me to understand what state I want the players to be in mentally before they go out on that pitch. Do I have to whip them up or flatten them down a little? Potentially I think it’s more likely I’ll be looking to calm things down if we are to go out and play our own game.

"There’s always a danger in these passionate occasions that players can get sucked into a physical battle. I think our team in particular has to be careful of that because invariably when we do get involved in a physical battle we don’t come out on top because of the lack of size in our team."

But he does want them to remain competitive - provided they channel it correctly. "The desire to compete physically when the going gets tough is certainly there, as they’ve already shown a few times this season by sticking together to grind out results when needed. So if it does descend into that then I’ve no fears we’d be found wanting. But it is important to play to our own strengths so hopefully we can make this an entertaining match. That’s what I’ll be encouraging before the game. Of course, you don’t want it to go the other way with the team not showing enough passion, so I have to get the balance right to make sure they are fired up but mentally switched on."

Stoking derby flames has never been the problem in the Hibs dressing room, but having set the league on fire, they now need to make sure that this time they don’t burn themselves out before the final whistle sounds. These kids need to prove they can mix it with the big boys.

Taken from the Scotsman

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