Scotland’s oldest derby involves two great clubs saved by fan ownership
Forever overshadowed by the Old Firm rivalry, Edinburgh’s derby has passion and heritage in spades. Hearts first played Hibs on Christmas Day in 1875, over a decade before Celtic and Rangers crossed swords. And, unlike today’s Glasgow encounter, the Edinburgh derby is still played with both sets of supporters present.
As the Scottish capital prepares for a cup tie on Sunday, Blair Meikle of Football Scotland discusses current form, past clashes and the benefits of fan-owned football clubs.
You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of Edinburgh’s football revival: the SPL table. In 2018-19, age-old rivals Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian were fifth and sixth, in 2021 Hibs finished third, as did Hearts the following season. These achievements may seem quite modest, but considering Hibs nearly sank under onerous debt in 2014 and Hearts entered administration the year before, the fact that both have since returned to the European stage is a minor miracle.
The reason? Fan ownership. “Hearts nearly went to the wall,” says Blair Meikle, correspondent for Football Scotland and a Hearts fan who lives near Edinburgh.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, no, not another crazy owner’,” he remembers, referring to the end of the catastrophic stewardship of Russian-Lithuanian millionaire Vladimir Romanov in 2013 and the potential owners rumoured to be coming on board. In the end, the Foundation of Hearts supporters’ group were given preferred status as bidders.
Millions of pounds were raised for the club to exit administration within a year, and to start signing players again. Overseen by company director Ann Budge, the process of reviving Hearts has not been smooth – relegation from the SPL during the 2020 pandemic did not go uncontested – but the woman who invested £2.5 million of her own money into saving the club in 2014 was able to transfer all its shares to the Foundation in 2021.
This makes Hearts the biggest fan-owned club in Britain. “There’s a definite community feel about the place now,” says Blair. “Most home games are sold out.” This is certainly the case on Sunday.
Each of Scotland’s last four cup finals has featured one side or the other. This year, it can’t be both, as the Edinburgh giants face each other at Easter Road on January 22. “We seem to always be meeting each in the cup, for some reason,” says Blair.
Sure enough, the 2022 semi-final paired the two together, a game played at neutral Hampden Park in Glasgow, as was the final in 2012. As this was the first such showcase fixture between them since 1896, many in Edinburgh were calling for the event to be held at Murrayfield, the national rugby stadium alongside Tynecastle, home of Hearts, but the Scottish FA held firm. Hampden it was, and a crowd of 51,000 instead of the potential 67,000 that could have filled Murrayfield.
Hibs, too, managed to recover under part fan-ownership, and around a third of the its shares belonged to supporters in 2017. Two years later, Peru-born US businessman Ron Gordon stepped in to become the majority shareholder, clearing the club’s debts and bringing with him the experience of a man who made his money in entertainment, seeing potential in the Spanish-speaking market. His grandfather left Scotland in 1908, bound for the New World.
For all Gordon’s ambition, Hearts have held the upper hand in recent derbies. As well as trouncing Hibs 5-1 in that 2012 cup final, they won the 2022 semi, and another two years before. “Matches have certainly become more exciting,” says Blair. “Derby games weren’t always of the best quality. They definitely have improved.”
“Many in Scotland scoffed at Joe Savage’s comments about aiming to catch Celtic and Rangers,” continues Blair, highlighting remarks made by Heart of Midlothian’s sporting director. “But why not aim for that? If Hearts stay third this season, that’s back-to-back top-three finishes, plus the group stage of the Conference League.”
The recent traditional New Year derby resulted in a straightforward 3-0 win for the team from Tynecastle, a game marred by a coin thrown at Hearts keeper Zander Clark. The Scotland squad member had only made his Hearts debut on Christmas Eve, substituting for legendary veteran Craig Gordon whose double leg break will see him out for the season. His head bleeding from the wound, Clark had made a heroic double save to preserve his team’s clean sheet.
Despite the incident, Blair feels that the Edinburgh derby is nowhere near as toxic as its Glasgow equivalent, as ferocious as any in football. Since the pandemic restrictions, neither Celtic nor Rangers have permitted rival supporters to attend.
“It’s just not as poisonous,” says Blair. “Yes, there may be an element of trouble, and there’s a general feeling of ill will, but the banter is more good-natured once the game’s over. The city is not as divided as Glasgow. Obviously the Gorgie area west of town is Hearts, Leith is Hibs, but overall, it’s more mixed.”
On the pitch, Blair points to prolific striker Lawrence Shankland and forward Barrie McKay as the keys to another Hearts victory. And then there’s veteran midfielder Robert Snodgrass: “He’s now dropped into a deeper midfield role.He was man of the match in the New Year derby. He just ran the show”.
Hibernian–Heart of Midlothian, Easter Road, Edinburgh. Sunday, January 22, 2pm. Blair Meikle writes for Football Scotland, your leading source for news, comments and analysis about the beautiful game north of the border.