Hearts are in the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup but that almost seemed like an after-thought yesterday as their supporters celebrated a famous victory over Hibernian with almost unbridled glee.
Hearts have been the dominant club in the city in recent years, largely as a result of their greater willingness to spend money on players that they, ultimately, could not afford. When the bills got too big and the Tynecastle club stumbled into administration, shedding almost all of their senior players, Hibs thought payback for their years of prudence and sensible planning would soon be theirs. So far it has not quite turned out that way.
If defeat to a bunch of Hearts kids in the first league derby of the season was sore, it was nothing compared to the pain felt following Wednesday night's League Cup defeat. Not only was this loss at home instead of Tynecastle, it also ended what was shaping up to be a great chance for Hibs to secure their first piece of silverware in seven years. Most gallingly, however, it was foisted upon them by a young Hearts team enduring one of the worst runs in the club's history, anchored to the foot of the SPFL Premiership table, and thought to be completely bereft of confidence.
For Hibs, this one must have stung almost as much as the 5-1 loss to the same opposition in last year's Scottish Cup final. Recriminations were swift, with a small group of supporters congregating outside Easter Road at full-time calling for manager Pat Fenlon to go. There are some who would argue that the Irishman has now overseen three of the worst results in Hibs' recent history, if the 9-0 aggregate defeat by Malmo in the Europa League earlier this season is also thrown into the mix. A staunch defence of Fenlon's abilities, however, came from an unlikely source.
Craig Levein will always be seen as a Hearts man, given both his extended service as a player at Tynecastle and a four-year stint as manager, but he was still willing to spring to the Irishman's defence, believing Fenlon deserved more time to turn things around. "I've heard the fans were shouting for him to go," said the former Scotland manager. "My view is that if you've picked the right guy then stick with him and give him a chance.
"Hibs are in a reasonable position just now. I think they will be a top six team, which I know you could argue is expected but they haven't always been in the top six. I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and let the guy get on with the job. That's not my decision, of course."
Levein was influential, however, in Fenlon getting the job in the first place, something that may add to the ire of Hibs fans and the delirium of the Hearts support. "Someone at Hibs phoned me and asked about him," he said. "I'd met Pat a few times through a friend of mine in Ireland. Pat did a great job in Ireland. I certainly recommended him as a character, although I hadn't worked with him.
"I don't think anyone has a crystal ball and can say what is going to happen with someone as manager. What you can do is look at their past record and he was exceptionally successful wherever he had been in Ireland. I think he is a decent person. He is certainly a really hard-working guy. If that defeat on Wednesday had not been against Hearts, it wouldn't have been quite as sore."
The pain of the defeat was felt acutely by Paul Hanlon too, but the Hibs defender sought to salve the agitation for his manager's dismissal by identifying the more promising elements of the performance against Hearts. His header struck a post as the Easter Road side dominated early on in the tie. "When you get beaten, the fans are going to be disappointed but the performance was of a decent standard," said Hanlon. "I don't think we have made as many chances in all the games put together as we did in this game."
Hearts took their chance, though, and the result would be a fillip for Fenlon's opposite number. Asked to perform in the most trying of circumstances, unable to sign any players and working largely with graduates from the club's youth academy, it has not always been easy for Gary Locke. "Lockey has, without a shadow of a doubt, the hardest job in management this year," said Levein, a former club-mate of Locke's at Hearts.
"The other night was brilliant for him. At the start of the season everyone is on a high and the stadiums are full but it's impossible, with a group of kids - and no disrespect to them but we're not talking about kids with star quality here - who are only in the team because there's nobody else. For a young guy to have to deal with that is incredible and it would be a remarkable achievement if he could take that team to a cup final."