Ancient rivals head for Europe, City for League One

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

The season of 2015-16 was arguably the most dramatic in the history of football in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

Returning to the Premiership as champions, Heart of Midlothian (‘Hearts’) won first their five games straight and finished in a European spot, two years after almost going out of business altogether.

Hibernian (‘Hibs’) won a first Scottish Cup for more than a century with a stoppage-game goal against Rangers that set Hampden alight, causing a mass pitch invasion and 100,000 to fill the streets of Edinburgh in the subsequent open-top bus parade. Hibs had not long lost the League Cup final, and a promotion play-off for the Premiership, both by last-minute goals.

Meanwhile, semi-professional outfit Edinburgh City became the first club to gain full League status through the newly established play-off system. Again, the decider was a late goal, a penalty that did for tenacious East Stirling.

So, from 2016-17 on, Edinburgh has three representatives in the top four divisions. In 2022, the upstarts from the Lowland League gained promotion to League One, moving back into the Meadowbank Stadium and rebranding themselves FC Edinburgh.

As concerns the Premiership, least one – and usually both – of city’s twin rivals of Hearts and Hibs had enjoyed top-tier status for 124 years until 2014. Both teams were relegated, Hearts punished with a 15-point deduction for entering administration.

The last time a club from the capital, Hearts, lifted the title, Elvis had not long touched down in Scotland on his way home from the Army.

As for Hibs, Presley hadn’t yet stepped into the Sun studio when they last won the league, in 1952. As for the cup, the Edinburgh rivals met in the final in 2012 –­ the first such clash since 1896.

A year after the so-called Edinburgh slam, when Hearts won the league, Hibs the Second Division and St Bernard’s the cup, the Scottish Cup Final of 1896 was the only time that the event left Glasgow. Played at the home of St Bernard’s, Logie Green, it drew 16,000 for the derby between the burgeoning rivals formed two decades earlier.

Just as Hearts had won the first ever derby at East Meadows on Christmas Day in 1875 – today a plaque marks the event – so they triumphed again in 1896. The club’s foundation date is commonly given as 1874, when members of a local dancing club opted for the rules of association football over a local code. Its name was taken from a Sir Walter Scott novel, set at Edinburgh’s former Old Tolbooth prison also known as: Heart of Midlothian.

Hearts have traditionally been based in Gorgie, west Edinburgh – and specifically the Tynecastle site since 1886. Though green-shirted Hibernian were formed by Irish immigrants in 1875, any sectarian element to the city rivalry is understated compared to Glasgow’s. Hibs draw their supporter based from Leith, and north and east Edinburgh.

St Bernard’s were originally the Third Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers, winners of the inaugural Edinburgh FA Cup, aka East of Scotland Shield, in 1876. Quickly dominated by Hearts and Hibs, it is still played for today, at youth level.

St Bernard’s folded in 1943, just when Ferranti electrical engineering company opened a factory in Edinburgh – and its workers formed a team, Ferranti Amateurs, later Ferranti Thistle. Taking advantage of a spare slot in the SFL and an underused Meadowbank Stadium, built for the Commonwealth Games of 1970, in 1974 the club became Meadowbank Thistle and gained full league status.

Running out in Ferranti’s traditional amber-and-black, in front of scant crowds in an echoing athletics ground, Thistle nonetheless narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier in 1988. With dwindling revenues, by 1995 Thistle were forced to either fold or move – they chose the new town of Livingston, 20 minutes from Edinburgh. Livingston FC currently compete in the Premiership.

Edinburgh City duly moved into the vacant Meadowbank. Sharing the stadium with them are Leith Athletic. Able to trace their history back to 1887, Leith were revived in 1996 and now run a dozen boys’ and ladies’ clubs, a valuable resource to the community. In 2016, the first team won the East of Scotland League, only to be denied Lowland League status through lack of an SFA licence. Starting 2016-17 as impressively as they finished 2015-16, Leith are working towards that elusive slot in Scotland’s fifth flight.

Finally, Lowland League challengers Spartans FC are based at Ainslie Park, purpose-built in 2008. Part of a project to develop a community football academy in north Edinburgh, it filled to near capacity of 3,000 for the club’s fifth-round tie against Berwick in the Scottish Cup of 2014-15. One game away from the quarter-finals, Spartans scored a last-minute equaliser – and only a goalpost stopped them from gaining another late draw in the replay. Now the aim is full league status – something that winning the Lowland League 2014 failed to achieve on a technicality.

Ainslie Park is at 94 Pilton Drive. The most direct bus from town is the 27, from Forrest Road by the National Museum, via the back of Waverley Station (North Bank St stop MA, Hannover St stop GP) and on to Opp Pilton Drive. Allow 15mins. Alternatively, from downtown Queensferry St (stop QD), the 19, X37 and 47 run to Selex Systems/Crewe Road North, also close.

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Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Edinburgh Airport is 9km (six miles) west of town, served by Lothian Bus Airlink 100 (every 10mins) to Waverley Bridge (30mins, £4.50) by the main train station of Waverley, within easy reach of Easter Road. There’s also a tram link (every 10mins) to the other station of Haymarket (35mins, £5), passing via Murrayfield close to Tynecastle.

A local City Cab (0131 656 0830/0131 228 1211) takes about 25mins into town, fare around £20-£25 depending on the specific destination.

As well as trams, city transport consists mainly of Lothian (singles £1.50 exact change only, day tickets £4) and First Group buses.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Cocktails, ales, wines and craft beers, Edinburgh has a proper venue for every taste. Many show matches too, including Grassmarket landmarks the White Hart Inn, with its half-millennium of history and Belhaven beers, and the food-focused Beehive Inn and Black Bull. Further along on Cowgate, supersized Irish pub Three Sisters has an equally whopping big screen in the forecourt.

Between Grassmarket and Waverley, appealing to a younger clientele, Belushi’s is a part of a Europe-wide chain of hostel and urban, sport-focused bar combined, while The Jinglin’ Geordie is nicely tucked away from the tourist hordes – note the photograph of one-time regular George Best in his serious-drinking prime after signing for Hibs.

Facing Haymarket station, attached to the Tune Hotel Platform 5 opened in 2014 and provides TV football, Belhaven beers and rump steaks to commuters and new arrivals.

Near the downtown terminus of the tram line, Mathers offers a huge selection of whiskies along with sports action on TV. Also on Broughton Street, The Phoenix prides itself on its four big-screen provision of football action, rotating guest cask ales and burgers.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the grounds and around town

VisitScotland Edinburgh Information Centre provides a hotel-booking service.

There’s only one hotel within easy reach of Tynecastle: the family-run Ardmillan, with live music in the bar, a terrace restaurant, garden and hearty Scottish breakfasts. Its bar is also a pre-match haunt.

For Hibs, there are plenty of hotels, guesthouses and boutique spots near the bottom of Easter Road, either side of Royal Terrace Gardens. Affordable and well located, the Twenty has a Thai restaurant and in-house bar.

Scores of hotels dot the city centre of tourist-focused Edinburgh, from century-old grand railway hotel The Balmoral by Waverley Station, with its spa and Michelin-starred restaurant, to the funky, wallet-friendly Tune Hotel by Haymarket station.

On focal Grassmarket, the Apex City Hotel is a contemporary four-star with online deals.

Of the international chains, the Holiday Inn Express is also handy for Easter Road while nearby, the Ibis Styles Edinburgh Centre is walking distance from Waverley.