Shaun Maloney watched his Hibs players confound the expectations of their own fearful fans as he fought Hearts to a standstill in his first Edinburgh Derby experience.
And he warned the Jambos that their city rivals – so often branded ‘soft’ by fans – will be even more physically fierce in this afternoon’s battle royal at Tynecastle.
Maloney, who has settled in central Edinburgh and likes to chat regularly with his supporters, revealed many punters raised the same concern ahead of February’s 0-0 draw at Easter Road.
“Talking to the fans before the game, they were really concerned that Hearts were physically dominant against us,” said the former Celtic and Scotland star.
“And I actually felt the opposite was true. We matched them physically – and that was a great thing for our fans.
“And I feel like we’re in a better place physically than we were then.
“So that was a really big concern for our support going into this game – and that was one of the really big positives to come out of it.
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“The fans did it (are worried about it). I don’t think they do it now.
Recognized for his technical abilities as a player and with a coaching CV that includes being part of the backstage team of the spectacularly talented Belgian national team, Maloney stressed the need to combine strength and skill.
“Competition is one of the aspects of the game that I love. I love the competitive side,” he said.
“Players can make mistakes in games, but the bare minimum they need to do is compete.
“And that’s what I liked about the last derby, even from some of our most technical players.
“Joe Newell was just a monster, physically, in that game. And how we tried to get Hearts out of possession. They did the same.
“But it was a really big thing for us in the last game, we felt that physically we leveled them.
“And that was a big worry for the club – away, really.
“So you ask if I learn things from my players.
“In this last derby, I learned a lot about my team in terms of competitiveness and the desire not to lose. If we show what we did in the last derby, and physically we are even better, I know that the performance will be good.
Hibs could need a win to secure a top-six place today and, with Hearts at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-final next weekend, Maloney isn’t afraid of the pressure.
Urging his players to show courage, he said: “It’s about bravery, but there are different kinds. There is the bravery that we have shown at the height of the physical. And then there’s the bravery we showed against Dundee United last week – when we were under pressure we had to play.
“Those two things will be absolutely vital for the game.
“And something we’ve been talking about for many weeks is how clinical we are in the final third.
“If we can find that, it will be an important factor in the game.
“I think only Celtic have a better defensive record than us since I arrived.
“But where the balance is not quite right, we are very good defensively but in attack we still have a lot to do.
“We have young players who I think have special moments in them, and who I think will be even better for the experience, whether positive or less positive by the end of the season.
“But it’s a balance that I have to work on. What we’ve done defensively is give us a platform to get into the top six and fight for a top four spot and a semi-final. .