Two proud Edinburgh clubs. Both are giants of Scottish football who’ve fallen on hardd times recently, but together are inspired by the belief that ‘the only way is up’.
I am of course referring to Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian,who suffered the heartbreak of relegation last season, and are now locked in the midst of a feisty and competitive battle in the Scottish Championship to return to the top table. The 1-1 draw at Easter Road sixteen days ago epitomised the fact that the competitive edge has not faded at all, and Alim Ozturk’s dramatic late leveller for Hearts arguably would not have been out of place in any of Europe’s top domestic leagues, such was the quality of the strike. Conceding in the last minute is bad enough for any football supporter, but when it is against your rivals, it makes it hurt that little bit more.
Relegation is something most football fans will come to experience at some stage, and every single one dreads. For Hearts, they put up a credible fight last campaign having been dealt the unwelcome blow of a fifteen-point deduction for falling into administration,so to a certain extent they expected to drop down a division. Many fans were simply delighted to see their club remain in existence, as prior to Ann Budge’s takeover of the Tynecastle outfit, it was not inconceivable to think this would not have been the case.
Hibernian, on the other hand, perhaps felt it even harder. Relegation was never considered a possibility when Terry Butcher took over in late 2013, but a dreadful run of just two wins in twenty-one matches dragged them into the relegation play-off. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Yet, both clubs have reasons to be optimistic as we approach the half-way point in the season. Hearts have adjusted themselves superbly under new manager Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein. Unbeaten (at the time of going to print) and with a four point cushion over 2nd placed Rangers, promotion at the first attempt is certainly a genuine possibility.
Alan Stubbs’ Hibs have found things a little more challenging so far, but that is to be expected given the disastrous set of results that culminated in an unprecedented relegation for both them and their fiercest rivals last season. In many ways, Stubbs has had to change the mind-set and mentality more than anything else, whereas their neighbours across the city had a strong conclusion to the campaign last term, even though relegation had long been confirmed by that point. This arguably left them better placed heading into the 2014/15 season.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are signs beginning to appear that Stubbs is finding a more settled line-up and stamping his mark on the side he inherited. They may be fourteen points off the pacesetters, but with promising younger players coming through the ranks, including Jordon Forster and Jason Cummings, as well as the experienced heads of David Gray and Liam Fontaine, there is more than enough for them to push on from here and challenge Hearts’ early season dominance. It was not just the city of Edinburgh that suffered by losing its two top-flight clubs for the first time simultaneously, it was also Scottish football which sustained an unwelcome headache. With Rangers’ fall well documented in recent years, people questioned whether the SPL could truly continue to be called an ‘elite’ competition. After all, it was not that long ago that Celtic and Rangers were winning titles, while Hearts and Hibs regularly challenged for European qualification alongside Dundee United, Aberdeen and Motherwell.
Sometimes though in football, change can be the best thing that can happen. Relegation was both unprecedented and something no one would have seen coming a few years ago. Nevertheless, Hearts and Hibs must look to the positives and view it as an opportunity to rebuild and come back stronger in the years to come. With only one automatic promotion spot and one promotion/ relegation play-off up for grabs, it is not unlikely that one of them will miss out on a return to the top flight this season. Even so, if that should happen, they are liable to be even stronger for the experience, particularly as both sides have extremely youthful squads, and that can’t be viewed as a bad thing.
It’s been a tumultuous past year or so for both these Edinburgh giants. Ultimately they can take comfort in the fact that, with progress being made on and off the field respectively, it’s surely only a matter of time before they make their return.