Had things panned out a little differently, Edinburgh might have had just one senior football team. The Scottish capital, like Aberdeen or Newcastle south of the border, would have been a one club city had Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer succeeded in his proposed takeover of financially ravaged Hibernian in the 1990s. Thank goodness he failed.
While the Old Firm derby is widely seen to be Scottish football’s defining rivalry, there is a distinct depth and charm to the contest between Hearts and Hibernian. The two sides will meet at Tynecastle on Wednesday night in what will be the latest installment in one of the most compelling, and under-appreciated, rivalries in the British game.
Just like the Old Firm rivalry, this is a derby that has its roots in much more than just football.
From their very inception, Hibernian have been linked with Catholic society, founded by Irish men from the Cowgate area of Edinburgh, adapting a harp as their emblem and aligning themselves with the Free Irish movement of the late 1880s. Hibernian, of course, is a name that is strongly derivative of the Latin name for the island of Ireland, Hibernia.
This is an identity that has stuck with the club to this day, with some sections of the Hearts support identifying with Unionism, even though the club’s historic roots don’t lie in any one political or religious ideology. It’s common to see Union flags flown at Tynecastle, particularly when Celtic or Hibs are in town. The thread can be traced back to the 1800s, when Protestants would gravitate towards Hearts with Hibernian the catholic club in the East.
Of course, with this comes an element of sectarianism. The rivalry isn’t stained in the same way the Old Firm derby is, but there have been incidents over the years, with the attack on Neil Lennon by a fan at Tynecastle in 2011 a real low point (even if the true motive was never proven). There is a crossover between the Old Firm and Edinburgh rivalries that does nothing for the Scottish game, with recent meetings between Celtic and Hearts somewhat toxic. It’s a complex dynamic that isn’t always easy to understand.
Nonetheless, the most interesting, noteworthy footballing rivalries are always down to more than just football – see Barcelona v Real Madrid and Liverpool v Manchester United – and the Edinburgh derby certainly satisfies this criteria. From a footballing perspective too, this is a rivalry which boasts plenty to catch the eye.
Both teams are in the ascendency at the moment, with Hearts currently sitting top of the Scottish Premiership table and Hibernian renowned for being the most exciting, entertainment team in the division. Injuries have hit the Jam Tarts hard in recent weeks, but their recent form has held up remarkably well. Hibs have the attacking quality through the likes of Stevie Mallan, Florian Kamberi and Martin Boyle.
Their clash this Wednesday will have a real bearing on the shape of the table, maybe on the title race, also holding the potential to be one of the games of the season.
Not for a long time has the Edinburgh derby mattered quite so much. Both clubs fell on tough times not so long ago, with Hearts flirting with financial oblivion, but this experience only seems to have emboldened them.
The 90s could feasibly have seen the establishment of an ‘Edinburgh United,’ a super-club for the whole city. Theoretically, this might have presented Celtic and Rangers with real competition from the East. Scottish football’s duopoly may have been broken up. It could have changed the sport north of the border forever.
But the charm and intrigue of British football’s most under-appreciated derbies would have been lost. Hearts and Hibernian are woven into the very fabric of Edinburgh, of Gorgie and Leith, as a city. They are a reflection of their respective communities, as well as a reflection of the depth of Scottish football as a whole. If you’ve got a spare 90 minutes on Wednesday night, tune in. You’ll see for yourself.