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Feast of football a fitting Tribute

EDINBURGH has rarely known a more sombre backdrop to its New Year footballing festiv-ities.

Within a matter of brutal hours last weekend, the death in his sleep of David Paul, an 18-year-old mainstay of Hibernians' Under-20 squad, and the loss of Jamie Skinner, a promising 14-year-old who had recently dropped down from Hearts' youth ranks to traditional feeder club Tynecastle FC, lent a singular sense of poignancy, perspective and symbolism to the events which will unfold at Easter Road on Thursday night.

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Football will go on, as it always does. After both sides pay their last respects and play their respective SPFL warm-up matches this afternoon - Hibs host Kilmarnock, while Hearts travel to St Mirren - expect these two ancestral rivals to give these two football-daft young men a fitting send-off.

"It will be Edinburgh's night, really, and very poignant," said Hibs manager Terry Butcher. "A celebration of two young boys' lives more than anything else.

"We'll certainly remember them before the game, and I would think during the game, but battle will commence. There will be extra significance and extra intensity in the game.

"Sometimes I've seen in the past that in Hibs-Hearts derbies the occasion has been the winner, but the football game hasn't.

"There hasn't been much football played because there's been so much at stake. But I think this year, because of the circumstances, it might be a freer game, more expansive, more of a thriller.

"The players are the lucky ones - they're able to go out there and do what David would have loved to have done himself."

There is something unbearably distressing about seeing young athletes cut down like this: in Paul's case, he was a well-liked, straight-A student at George Watson's, who just days ago was impersonating Jedward at the club's Christmas show in the same room where his team-mates gathered to eulogise him.

Tragically, his death follows that of his sister in similar circumstances some years before.

But bereavement is a fact of life: some just have to experience it more than others. Michael Nelson, who trained and played alongside Paul as he worked his way back to full fitness, recalls the death of 20-year-old Michael Maidens in 2007.

"When I was at Hartlepool we lost a member of the first-team squad, Michael, in a car crash, so I've experienced it before," said Nelson, who was also part of the Killie League Cup winning squad whose celebrations were cut short by the death of Liam Kelly's father.

"It's not nice. Everyone will deal with it in their own way, especially the young boys who were closer to David than others. It's up to the more senior boys and the coaches to come together and look after them.

"Being injured, I played a couple of games with the 20s during my rehab so I played and trained with David. But even if you didn't, you get to see the young boys around the club every day as they are as much a part of the club as the senior boys.

"I didn't see a great deal of him, but when you speak to the younger boys and the coaches you find out he was a talented young man."

Even without this emotional backstory, the game would have been diverting enough with one main protagonist, the occupant of the home technical area, being a self-confessed "Edinburgh derby virgin".

Butcher has featured prominently for good or ill in numerous Old Firm derbies, and presided over a fair few Highland grudge matches, but the capital version promises something different again.

Cognisant, however, of the fact that Hibs have lost both derbies 1-0 this season to a callow Hearts side, and still feeling the after-effects of that 5-1 Scottish Cup final defeat in 2012, Butcher has ordered up extra sessions with his "language expert" David Yeomans.

He encourages players to share their memories of traumatic experiences, then shows them mechanisms to explode those thoughts and focus only on the future.

"The most recent derbies I have been in are the Highland derbies," said Butcher. "They are intense and very competitive, but with all due respect I don't think it is anything like an Edinburgh derby.

"It is something I am looking forward to very much. But I want to win, no doubt about that. There's none of this enjoying the experience then losing. We want to win and we want to win well.

"There is nothing I can do about that [the 5-1 defeat at Hampden in 2012]. But it is one of those ones you look back on and you can still see the hurt in the Hibs fans' faces. Some players still had the 5-1 in the back of their minds, or the 1-0 defeat this season, or the Malmo match, they still had those anchors, but we are trying to get rid of them because you can't let what happened in the past affect you in the present. You have to have closure, forget it and move on.

"Some will say I will use that pain, disappointment and that anger as a motivating tool, but it doesn't motivate you: it makes you tense, overeager, so you are not actually really fully focused."

While Hibs are desperately trying to shed their baggage, Hearts have their own crosses to bear. The effervescence displayed by this young and depleted squad at the start of the season has long since dissipated into a winter of discontent, the strain seemingly being transmitted to the club's senior players such as Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald and Danny Wilson.

While MacDonald was in superb form against Celtic last week, Hamill admits it can be hard to focus on your own performance when you are busy trying to chaperone others.

"To a certain extent it has been tough, but I knew what I was letting myself in for when the manager approached me and asked me to continue playing for Hearts," said Hamill, who has been moved to right back in recent weeks to bolster the defence.

"Everybody has been asked to put themselves under a bit of pressure but you just have to get on with it. But it is difficult sometimes with a younger squad - you try to help them through the games when sometimes you should be concentrating more on yourself.

"There are other teams making errors as well - it is not just us. But we are in the situation where we can't really afford to be making them."

If Hearts are to save themselves, maintaining their superiority over their city rivals is as good a way as any.

There is a theory that subjecting 16 or 17-year-olds to the ravages of first-team relegation battles could stunt their development, but Hamill takes an alternative view. "I think I would enjoy it actually, to be honest with you," he said.

"Some are getting their opportunity, where it might have taken them another year or two getting out on loan or things like that.

"But they are getting their opportunity now and they have got to take it; if they don't, someone else will step up to the plate and they will maybe regret it."

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