I was a Hibernian player for seven and a half years, but in truth I only really took part as a first team player in four of them. For the first three and a half, I was a reserve player, trudging all over the country on a Saturday (in those days we played the opposite league fixture at the other ground) and very often on a Monday night in the East of Scotland reserve league. Brechin, Forfar, Montrose et al were my ports of call back then, as well as the empty stadiums at Ibrox, Celtic Park and Tynecastle.
But you know what, not once did I give anything less than my all. Windy nights in Arbroath where the seagulls got more touches of the ball than I did and wet nights at Forfar where young Aberdeen wannabes would try and kick lumps out of me after a day in the tractor, were all the same to me. I was a full time professional footballer, as long as I could still say that I was like a pig in the proverbial. I had made three fleeting appearances in the first team during that time and although I was in and around the fringes by now, being treated like a first team player, I was beginning to feel disillusioned at not getting a chance.
During this time, as a footballer, you start to raise doubts about yourself. I knew I wasn’t a top player, but I also knew that I could do a job in that Hibs team. We had excellent footballers in Mickey Weir, Pat McGinlay, Keith Wright and Murdo MacLeod, but I still felt I could do a job in there (even though when I read those names back now I wonder how I managed to eventually get in). I’d go and politely chap the manager’s door now and then and we’d have a chat. Don’t believe all that nonsense about players banging down the Gaffer’s door because they weren’t playing. It doesn’t happen. You’d knock and wait, just as you would in any other walk of life, like a naughty schoolboy waiting to see the headmaster. I’d get all the usual answers, “of course you’re still part of the plans,” “your time will come” and “you still have a future here.” I know now, from having worked on the other side of the desk, I was being pandered to. I was a good pro who was never going cause major trouble, I could be trusted and relied upon if called upon, but biggest of all, I was relatively cheap. In terms of a budget, a player like that is great to have around, an extra addition to the squad for a relatively low wage is invaluable. Only back then, I was naive and couldn’t see it. There is no blame attached to Alex Miller in this at all, he was doing his job and, in truth, doing it very well. At least I didn’t have much longer to wait for my chance.
January the 1st, 1992 to be precise. An Edinburgh “Ne’erday” Derby was to be my baptism of fire. It wasn’t my debut, but it felt like it as it had been so long since I had started a first team game and, here I was, thrown in at the deep end. But as I said, I could be trusted, couldn’t I?
The build up to the game was intense. With the New Year’s Day evening kick off and as it was the first ever Edinburgh Derby to be televised live on Sky, the media scrutiny was a little more intrusive than a ‘normal’ league match. But that’s where the differences ended, because after that we trained as normal, ate as normal and played as normal.
But this was a Derby; this was going against everything I understood about derbies. I was ready to kick and smash my way through everything maroon. To leave my mark and make sure that if we didn’t win, they knew who I was. As it was, ‘normal’ was good enough on this occasion for a point. Ian Ferguson scored midway through the second half and we equalised from a dubious penalty. It was a cold, damp, dreary night, but I had played well and a point at Tynecastle was always welcome in the gloom. I made few mistakes and stood up well to a bruising battle with Ian Baird, who had been brought in from England that summer to rough us up, evidence of Hearts’ ‘normal’ approach to these games. However, as has been well documented, Hibernian’s record in derbies was to become far from normal.
I was to go on to take part in nine derbies in total and, I am still disgusted to say my record was five draws and four defeats.
This to me typified our approach to these games. There was no question in my mind, that in many of the derbies I took part in, we had better players. We had by now signed Darren Jackson, Kevin McCallister, Michael O’Neill and Brian Hamilton. So there could be no question, it HAD to be mental; it HAD to be our way of treating it just like any other game. There would be games where we were on top and dominated and yet we still couldn’t win.
The biggest example was a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road. We were all over them, but couldn’t score and, as the minutes wore on, there was a horrible sense of déjà vu. There was a feeling of what was about to come as our home support grew edgier and from an attack where WE could have won it, the inevitable Hearts goal came at the other end. I’ll never forget the timing, 87 minutes. The phrase “it’s never over ‘til the fat striker scores” was aired again, only this time it was Wayne Foster who obliged and not wee Robbo. We were out. They’d done it again, turned us over and I’d never felt so bad after a defeat. But do you know what, we deserved it. Why? Because we never changed our approach to the derby. Granted, we would occasionally change our tactics, or shape, or spring a surprise in team selection a la New Year ’92. BUT WE NEVER WENT TO WAR. It was just another game, another three points or another cup tie against Hearts and they hadn’t lost.
We had a good side and were competitive in the League each season as well as having decent runs in both cups, but I couldn’t stand our record against Hearts, it embarrassed me and, over the years, it hasn’t improved much either.
I always felt the Hearts boys treated the derby differently to us. They WERE going to war, primed for a battle, while we were going to play football. That wasn’t my personal preference because there was only one way I could play, but I never felt as a team we were ever as fired up as Hearts were. They were snarling and scratching at you from the tunnel onto the pitch. They were pressing all over us, people like Sandison, Black, Kidd, Mackay, Levein and Robertson galvanising and pushing each other. Make no mistake, they were angrier than us. They were ready for a derby, ready for a scrap. That’s how they done it and the longer it went without beating them the more difficult it became mentally as well as physically.
I wish just once we could have been sent out with a different message than believing that, because we felt we had better players, our football would win in the end. We should have gone toe-to-toe with them, man against man, warrior against warrior, because believe me, there were times when that was all that Hearts team done against us. They had very good players in their own right, but when it came to the Edinburgh derby, there was a certain way to win it and, they knew how.
Unfortunately, over the years I haven’t seen much evidence of that attitude having changed. With Craig Levein now in a position of power at Hearts and Robbie Neilson a veteran of many derbies, I wouldn’t expect it to change this weekend either. I would never dream of trying to tell Alan Stubbs how to do his job, he has far more experience at a higher level than I have both as a player and a coach. But I know one thing, I know the game and I know how NOT to win an Edinburgh derby and if Alan wants to stick my blog up on the dressing room wall as a motivational tool that helps the current crop of players to that elusive victory, or just use it as toilet paper before the game, then I’d have no problem with either. But they better be ready for a war of monumental proportions. Because I know Hearts will.
Onto this week’s Guest Tipster and after a sterling effort from Bill Leckie last week with only one selection beating his big priced treble, i’m sticking with the Derby theme and my old Hearts pal Paul Ritchie has sent his Tips from America. Ritch is going for Aberdeen (8to15) to beat Motherwell, St Mirren (evs) to beat Ross County and Raith Rovers (4to5) to beat Alloa. Good luck