Capital start and Finnish lines

Phil Gordon reveals the friendly rivalry in today's Edinburgh derby
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The Independent Football

Bad tempers and raised voices are likely to disturb the calm of an otherwise blissful Sunday in Edinburgh today, and this time you can't pin the blame on the Gallagher boys.

Bad tempers and raised voices are likely to disturb the calm of an otherwise blissful Sunday in Edinburgh today, and this time you can't pin the blame on the Gallagher boys.

Noel and Liam seem placid in comparison to the followers of Hearts and Hibernian, who will probably fill Tynecastle Stadium with more noise this afternoon than rock's notorious brothers did last night around the corner. The Oasis concert at Murrayfield forced local police to switch the city's hallowed football feud from its original place on the opening day of the Scottish Premier League calendar.

Amid all the rancour will be an oasis of Nordic calm: Antti Niemi, the Hearts and Finland goalkeeper, and Mixu Paa-telainen, Hibernian's battering- ram of a striker. Unlike Noel and Liam - who occupied separate cities (Noel in Edinburgh and Liam in Glasgow) before the gig because they cannot stand the sight of each other, Antti and Mixu like nothing better than mixing.

Niemi, the man most likely to face England in the World Cup qualifying tie this autumn, spends time every week fraternising with the "enemy", because his international coll-eague Paatelainen is his closest friend in football. Through a circuitous route, both now share Scotland's capital city, but Niemi realises that each must put that friendship on ice and side with the maroon and green halves of Edinburgh.

"I've known Mixu since he was at Bolton," explains Niemi. "I went there on trial for a month and he let me stay in his house. Since then we've become close friends. We room together when we are with Finland, and our wives and families get together a lot now we are both in Edinburgh."

The friendship even survived Paatelainen's single-mindedness when the clubs met in May on the final day of last season. "I went up for a cross and Mixu hit me in the corner of the eye," smiled Niemi ruefully.

"But this is a game everyone wants to win. The pressure was greater for the last one because Hibs could have denied us a place in the Uefa Cup if they had won. Even I could sense it, and the local lads in the team whose families follow Hearts were pumped up. I'm sure it was the same in the Hibs dressing-room - this is one city you don't want to lose a derby in."

Ironically, that is just what Niemi did when he joined Hearts last Christmas. A 3-0 defeat by the neighbours was not the ideal present for the man who had just joined from Rangers in a £400,000 transfer.

However, since then both Niemi, now 27, and Hearts have been good for each other. He was invaluable in helping Jim Jefferies' team finish third in the SPL last May, while the goalkeeper's revival after being frozen out at Ibrox has made him Finland's first choice again.

"There's a simple explanation," Niemi said. "I have been given the chance to play football again at Hearts. At Ran-gers, I was too excited before a game, thinking, 'I need to be very good, or I won't get another chance for two months.' Here, I play every week, and everything comes naturally."

Niemi, who was brought to Ibrox by Walter Smith in 1997 from FC Copenhagen, was harshly treated by Smith's successor, Dick Advocaat. The reward for one stunning performance against Parma two seasons ago in the Uefa Cup, was to see the club buy Stefan Klos from Borussia Dortmund the following week.

"When we beat Hibs to get into Europe I felt part of the celebrations," Niemi recalled, "which was never the case at Rangers. Although they had a lot of medals and parties, I was a squad player and honestly never felt part of it."

Anonymity might not be possible if Niemi and Paatelainen shock Kevin Keegan's side in a few months. Indeed, the Hearts player thinks his friend's low profile is misleading. "Jari Litmanen and Sammi Hyppia might be bigger stars now in Finland and play for Barcelona and Liverpool, but Mixu was the guy who showed us all the way when he came to Scotland 13 years ago to join Dundee United.

"He was never a superstar, just a quiet, honest player who does his job, which is why so many clubs have bought him."

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