Heart of Midlothian 1, Hibernian 0: Hearts can't rule heads as capital limits ambitions
The Old Firm title race should and will hog the headlines at the business end of the season, but this Edinburgh derby held more intrigue than any other game in the SPL for reasons pertaining to what we will call the KTH – the Keegan Theatre Hypothesis.
Following the KTH, southerners have presumably spent the weekend at playhouses such as The National in London, where, incidentally, current shows include "Happy Now?", "Present Laughter" and "Much Ado About Nothing". (Also all showing at St James' Park). Meanwhile, men in northern climes, after a hard week's graft, want good-looking football. Which is where Hibs and Hearts come in.
They should each have legitimate aims to be Scotland's third footballing force, but both are hamstrung financially. Yet by common consensus Hibs have consistently played the most pleasing football in the country these past few years, while Hearts, briefly, deserved that honour in the months of George Burley's short reign in 2005.
Hibs' reward was silverware last season under John Collins in the CIS Cup, their first trophy in 16 years. Hearts' was a brief spell as the main threat to the Old Firm's duopoly, plus the 2006 Scottish Cup and heady hopes.
Hearts' owner, Vladimir Romanov, put a stop to that. He might be deft on his feet – last month, aged 60, he won Lithuania's Strictly Come Dancing – but as a football proprietor he has the touch of an elephant. He axed Burley, Hearts went into freefall and they keep on spinning. But maybe, just maybe, Saturday was a pointer to how the freefall can be reversed.
Stephen Frail is Hearts' current caretaker, and this was his first home game since Romanov gave Frail carte blanche on football decisions, for now. Frail picked a side with industry at its heart in Ruben Palazuelos, and with a strategy of flank play to service a livewire main front man, Andrius Velicka. The players are responding. Velicka got the only goal, heading bravely in a mêlée, bamboozling the Hibs' goalkeeper, Yves Ma-Kalamby, who fumbled over the line.
For 45 minutes it was engaging, pacy fare: chances for both sides and one terrific save by Ma-Kalamby. The second half was more about Hearts holding on. Which is why when Frail warned afterwards that this does not mean Hearts have "turned the corner", he was right. Yes, this was the first win since November, the first clean sheet at home since May last year, and the latest display that hints at renewed cohesion. But real growth will come only when Romanov appoints a manager and, for the first time in his ownership, allows him time to get on with his job. Romanov could do worse than keep Frail, and look across the city to see the benefits of faith.
Tony Mowbray, between May 2004 and October 2006, did a superb job nurturing Hibs' young players, and Collins too until he had had enough of selling the family silver. Every single member of the Hibs' side who started at Tynecastle in this corresponding fixture just two years ago has moved on, and mostly up, including Steven Whittaker (Rangers), Gary Caldwell (Celtic), David Murphy (Birmingham), Ivan Sproule (Bristol City), Scott Brown (Celtic), Kevin Thomson (Rangers), Garry O'Connor (Birmingham), and Derek Riordan (Celtic).
Mixu Paatelainen, undaunted by managing a selling club, now has the task of maintaining the supply chain, with a simultaneous aspiration to the KTH. He has promised "exciting, attacking and intelligent football", and if Saturday fell short, as he admitted, then it is early days. He shows all the signs he will be an excellent man manager.
Last week, in Paatelainen's first game, he allowed Dean Shiels – often ignored by Collins – to play in a preferred role "in the hole" and was rewarded with a hat-trick. And Ma-Kalamby, Paatelainen stressed on Saturday, was not solely responsible for Hearts' goal; it was team error at a set-piece.
Of Hearts' own first-choice XI of two years ago, nine of them are gone, driven out by acrimony as well as finance. Repairing the damage begins with unity, as a Yorkshireman in Newcastle might tell you.
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