For 137 years Hibernian have played Heart of Midlothian. The two grand old clubs from Scotland’s capital have met over 300 times, a fixture full of sound and fury raging from Easter Road to Gorgie Road and romping down Princess Street en route, a hearty staple of the upper echelons of the Scottish game. Next season will be different.
The best-case scenario for those from the city’s green half is that it will prove one of those rare blank derby campaigns, the first for 15 years. The worst, and the one those in maroon are now hoping for, is that for the first time ever the Edinburgh derby will happen in Scotland’s second tier.
Tonight at New Douglas Park, the functional, flat-pack home of Hamilton Academical, Terry Butcher will send his side out to fight for their Premier League lives, and probably his managerial life too. Hibs face two games against Hamilton, the Championship runners-up. If Accies come out on top after Sunday’s second leg at Easter Road, then the two clubs will swap places.
“They know what is at stake, two games – that’s our season,” said Butcher, whose brief tenure has been disastrous for a club that began the campaign in Europe.
Form favours Hamilton. They won their final league game 10-2, then saw off Falkirk in a play-off for the right to face the Premier League’s second-bottom team.
Hibs have trained anxiously since their last game, a home defeat by Kilmarnock a week and a half ago. They have won only one of their last 19, a horrible run in what has been a season of horrors for the Edinburgh clubs.
Hearts are already gone, in reality long gone. The 15-point penalty imposed for entering administration was a delayed death sentence to their Premier League status. In an odd way that has allowed the club to make the drop with a little bit of optimism; the torrid Romanov era is at last over and Ann Budge, the new chair and chief executive, has spelt out that the new regime are looking at a long-term plan, placed ahead of a prompt return to the Premier League, to run the club within its means to ensure its very future will not be threatened again.
Hibs will also have a woman in charge next season with Leeann Dempster arriving from Motherwell to take over as chief executive. Chairman Rod Petrie has delivered his own promise of change and has also apologised to supporters for a “dismal” campaign. After the Kilmarnock game supporters protested outside Easter Road; they wanted Butcher to be axed.
The 55-year-old arrived in November to become the club’s seventh manager in a decade, having rebuilt his reputation in four years at Inverness. His managerial career has never been straightforward. “My highs have been high but my lows have been very low,” he said recently. “I’ve had some disasters.”
This one is down there with his worst. When Butcher’s Hibs beat Hearts in the New Year’s derby the talk was of a top-six finish. Since then they have beaten only Ross County and the season ended with eight defeats in nine games. Butcher took his side to Lowland League side Spartans this week to get used to the artificial surface they have to play on tonight. Confidence is fragile, at best.
Losing Hibs and Hearts to the Championship, where they will join Rangers, would be a blow felt beyond the capital. The Edinburgh clubs had the second and fourth best attendances in the top flight this season.
These are curious times for Scottish domestic football. There are significant financial issues across the league – sponsors are hard to come by – but there are more positive signs further north: St Johnstone won their first Scottish Cup and Inverness reached their first major final. The Old Firm were conspicuous by their absence from either domestic final. Aberdeen and Dundee United, the old New Firm, have improved, with United in particular nurturing an encouraging crop of home-grown players.
None of which means anything to Edinburgh’s football supporters. Before he was dismissed as Hearts’ manager this week, Gary Locke suggested it would be “terrible” were Hibs to join Hearts in the second tier.
“Not just for Edinburgh, but for the whole of Scottish football,” said Locke. “If you look at the bigger picture, we don’t have a league sponsor, we don’t have a sponsor for the League Cup and we need all of our top teams in the top division. Hibs are a big club, Hearts are a big club, Rangers are a big club, and I want all of these clubs in the top flight.”
Rangers and Hearts are no longer there because of off-field failings. Hibs’ situation is more straightforward; they have not been good enough on the pitch. “The time for talking’s long past,” said Pat Stanton, a club legend. “It’s the time for people to stand up and be counted.”