Hearts and Stendel’s topsy-turvy ride reaches new unexpected high with another surprise Edinburgh derby win
If we needed any further evidence that Hearts don’t do straight-forward, predictable victories under manager Daniel Stendel, then Tuesday’s stunning Edinburgh derby upset over rivals Hibernian is perhaps the best example yet. It could also be the result which finally turns their battle for survival around.
There have been a lot more downs than ups since Stendel took charge in December, with the Jambos rooted to the bottom of the Scottish Premiership for much of that time.
But now the green shoots of recovery are beginning to show, with Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals followed by this, a remarkable 3-1 win against their in-form neighbours Hibs at Easter Road.
They are two results which, given what had come before, defies logic and belief. Hearts had endured a torrid February, conceding a league-high 13 goals and picking up just two points from four games as their position at the bottom of the table became more and more precarious.
Hibs, meanwhile, were on an impressive run of form under manager Jack Ross, hitting five past Inverness in their last outing. Optimism was high around Easter Road, with the opportunity to pile further misery on their rivals there to be grabbed. A comprehensive home win was predicted, but Hearts made sure the form book was again torn up and thrown out the window.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Hearts’ season is this: out of their four league wins this campaign, half of them have come at the home of their biggest rivals, and another is against a Rangers side who are in the last-16 of the Europa League. This is a side whose push for Premiership survival has been built on the unconventional.
They were fortunate at times, and Ross and his side will look back on Sean Clare’s second-half penalty, awarded for a Scott Allan handball, as the moment where the momentum shifted in Hearts’ favour.
After a balanced, scrappy opening half, there was nothing separating the teams up until Clare slotted the ball into the net in front of the visiting fans, although the home side were fortunate Marc McNulty had not been shown a straight red for stamping on Clare’s back during the opening period.
From there Hearts had something to hold on to, and for a defensive unit which has been criticised for being too open in recent weeks, Stendel’s side suddenly clicked into gear and were excellent as they defended their lead.
Clevid Dikamona, in for the injured John Souttar, was immense in the centre of defence and kept the red-hot Hibs striker Christian Doidge firmly in his pocket, while left-back Aaron Hickey quickly shut down the threat of winger Martin Boyle.
But this was a defensive performance for the whole team to be proud of. Bodies were thrown in the direction of Hibs shots as countless blocks were made. It wasn’t until Melker Hallberg poked in a consolation goal that Hibs managed to have a shot on target. Hearts were then clinical on the counter attack, with Oliver Bozanic curling in from outside of the box for his second important goal of the week, before Conor Washington powerfully finished off an individual break for the third. Substitute Steven Naismith could have even added a fourth late on.
What happens next will define Hearts’ season. With just 10 Premiership games to go, Stendel cannot afford for this to be another false dawn.
Hearts’ previous, equally dramatic, victory over Hibs in September was followed by five games without a win, while the Rangers result at the start of this year preceded Hearts’ dismal February run. Games against out-of-form Motherwell and fellow strugglers St Mirren are next, what sort of Hearts will we see then?
“It’s only one step,” Stendel said afterwards. “It’s only one game in the league and we have 10 games left, we need to do it again on Saturday and again next week.
“But it’s good for our confidence. We know we can do it two times in a row and I hope we can show it three times in a row.”
Hibs will have the chance for revenge when they meet Stendel’s side in their Scottish Cup semi-final in April, but the result still comes as a blow in their push for third place in the Premiership. It is also a blunt wake-up call after demonstrating that they were capable of a consistent run of form under Ross, which has seen Hibs close the gap on Motherwell and Aberdeen in the top-four.
“The rawness of losing a derby fixture is there and it’s important that we recognise how sore it is,” Ross said.
“In the aftermath of this type of result [the players] will probably be told that they are really poor, but the truth is that they are not, and they’ve shown that in recent times.
“What they’ve got is an opportunity on Saturday to win a game again and put part of that right, and in terms of this fixture and what it means to people we’ve got a chance in a big game [the Scottish Cup semi-final] to do that in five or six week’s time.”
There is a lot of football to be played ahead of that April weekend. What position Hearts and Stendel will find themselves in when Hampden rolls around, on this basis, is anyone’s guess.