Letter from Lochend
One of the features on this blog will be “Letter from…”. Sebas, a Dutch Hibee and big admirer of Edinburgh, and I will send eachother letters this season. Subjects like both Edinburgh clubs, Scottish fitba, the city, Scotland and much more will be talked about. Sebas has the honour to kick-off this series. First subject is of course the derby who will be played for the 318st time this Sunday.
August 17th it is on again: the Edinburgh Derby. Although it now will be played at the Scottish second tier (for the first time in the derby’s history), it still is more than just a derby.
You would be able to say that Hibs versus Hearts is the world’s oldest football derby that is still played on a regular basis on a professional level. There are Sheffield FC and Hallam, playing each other in their local derby since the early 1860s, but those clubs have always remained amateurs. The fame of being the oldest derby that has gone professional usually goes to the encounter between Nottingham Forest and Notts County, but how often do they still meet?
It’s very different when it comes to Hibs and Hearts. Those two will never be able to get rid of each other. Last season, Hibs simply refused to get a win for 13 league matches in a row when, for a moment, it seemed that due to Hearts’s imminent relegation there would be no derby the following season.
The first match between Hibs and Hearts took place on Boxing Day in the year of 1875. Back then, playing Hibs was a very nice gesture from Hearts, because as you will know, until then every other club had refused to play the “wild Irish” from the backstreets of Edinburgh’s Old Town. This was due to the Edinburgh Football Association instructing its members not to play against Hibernian. They declared the association was catering for Scotsmen, not for Irishmen. Hearts ignoring this instruction opened the doors for Hibernian to participate in local football. I would say that this deed is the most significant achievement from the Heart of Midlothian history.
However, friendly relations were soon to be over. Already in 1876, trouble occurred after the Hearts players had a hard time accepting losing a national cup match against the ‘inferior Irishmen’. Two years later, Hibs and Hearts met in the 1878 final of the Edinburgh Cup, which after four draws finally was decided – in Hearts’ favour – in the fourth replay. Accounts of Hibs-minded football historians describe how the local association and the referees took the one dodgy decision against Hibernian after the other. Historians loyal to Hearts, on the other hand, emphasize bad conduct of the Hibs fans and players. The five-match final would be the first football match to be reported on in the Edinburgh papers (thus seeing the birth of Edinburgh football journalism). The event contributed to Hibs and Hearts becoming the city’s two main clubs and perpetuated a fierce rivalry.
Hibs versus Hearts thus is a great historical match, which in the 21th century still stirs the same emotions as it did in the 19th. Surely one to watch, one would say. Or maybe not… When halfway last season, Hibernian was still sitting comfortable in mid-table, and it already was clear that Hearts would not overcome their 30-point deficit, I found the prospect of a ‘derby-less’ season rather relaxing. This is because Hibs suffers from derby blues. We just lose to many of them. That would not be such a problem if Hearts would be a significantly bigger club. I imagine the fans of Espanyol and 1860 Munich suffer little from their – as I presume – poor derby records. There must be comfort in taking pride to support the (relative) small club, despite also having an international top team on your doorstep. Hibernian and Hearts, however, are similar sized clubs. From old, Hearts is slightly bigger, but not to such an extent that it justifies our piss-poor derby record.
Still I would say that the biggest shame in the derby falls upon Hearts. Arguably the most notable episode in the Edinburgh Derby history took place in 1990. Wallace Mercer, the then Hearts chairman, made a bold attempt to acquire a majority share in Hibernian. His intention was to absorb Hibs into Hearts. What officially was said to be a merger, was planned to become a club named Heart of Midlothian, playing at Tynecastle in Hearts’s colours. Hibernian’s identity was to be eradicated completely. A scheme that would surely win the approval of Red Bull today. Evidently, the Hibs faithful resisted and managed to stop Mercer. They are to be thanked that one of the oldest derbies in football history still is played today. When I first learned of this story, I was happy to found out to stand at the right side of the Edinburgh derby. After all, the good guys in the typical “underdog sports movie” surely are those that are forced to fight for their existence, aren’t they?
You better could have made your way to Leith as well. Sure, Hearts is a fine club to write a book about, but of course in this respect they come short by a long shot to what the Hibernian Football Club has to offer. Hibernian’s history is steeped of epic elements: the club of immigrants that had to fight for their existence in what initially was a very hostile social environment. The club that throughout its history repeatedly has re-invented its identity: an Irish club, a Scottish club, a British club? The club of Edinburgh or Leith? Hibernian never was Edinburgh’s “establishment club”. I have no problems shrugging that honour off to Hearts. Hearts has always in the same fashion been the ‘standard club’. Hibernian has in different fashions been the ‘alternative club’. The latter evidently is much more interesting. Someone whose identity never undergoes any change cannot really say to have a history.
And then there is our cursed cup record. The last time Hibernian won the Scottish Cup was in 1902, despite great Hibs teams the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s. Evidently this is something Hearts fans (that already have witnessed their team lift three Scottish cups since 1998) enjoy to remind the Hibs supporters about. But there is also a story in this fact. From a literary perspective, what is the most appealing scenario? The club that throughout its entire history is loaded with silverware, or the club that has been longing for that one moment for generations, coming close on many occasions, but still has not seen that one dream come to fruition? Behind our “1902-trauma” lives the potential of an absolutely epic cup victory. And when that “underdog sport movie”-scenario finally comes to fulfilment, with Sunshine on Leith we have the perfect song for the credit roll.
I do not have any social or genetic tie to Edinburgh, Scotland, Ireland, or Great-Britain whatsoever, which makes me part of the small – but existing – international contingent of Hibernian supporters. It are, among many other factors, the features named above that have tied me to Hibernian Football Club. The last couple of years it rarely has been fun to root for Hibs, but when the feeling has grown on you it is very hard to eradicate.
When it comes to Sunday, I do not dare any predictions. Both teams had good performances at Ibrox (how would Hibs have faired if they hadn’t be reduced to ten men?). Last week, it was a nice experience to see Hibs come by at different international websites. Goalkeeper Oxley, in his first official Hibs performance, scored what later turned out to be the winner from its own box against his Livingston colleague. If only our victory in the former-derby (Livingston FC stems from former Edinburgh side Meadowbank Thistle) is some kind of overture for this Sunday…