I T was never likely to be long before the verbal volleys started being launched across Auld Reekie ahead of a campaign in which Hibernian and Hearts will cross swords in the top flight for the first time since 2014.
In the most thinly of veiled digs at their city neighbours, John McGinn has questioned the fortitude of the squad assembled by Hearts as their season collapsed last term.
Amid woeful January signings, meek performances and dreadful results, the Hibernian midfielder believes Hearts simply could not cope with the pressure of representing the Tynecastle outfit.
It is a stress he recognises in Leith but asserts that, unlike the men in maroon, Hibs have a group of players capable of dealing with it.
The two meetings between the sides last term appear to bear his opinion out, with Hibs knocking Ian Cathro’s side out of the Scottish Cup, securing a hard-fought 0-0 draw at Tynecastle before comfortably dismantling their foes 3-1 in the replay.
Indeed, it is now six Edinburgh derbies without a win for Hearts.
“You have to be able to deal with the pressures that playing for a big club like Hibs brings. It’s not for everyone,” McGinn said. “Ordinary players can’t do well here. You need to know what’s expected of you and I think everyone in our dressing-room knows that. The support can be demanding and I like that.
“It’s probably the same across the city at Hearts. You could see when they brought in a lot of new players in January that, without
being disrespectful to them, they just weren’t ready to go and play for a big club like Hearts.
“I’ll avoid being controversial and just say Hibs are, at least, every bit as big as Hearts so the same applies. It takes a certain character to come here and play with character and style, [different to] other clubs where the demands aren’t quite as high.”
With Neil Lennon stating recently that Hibernian should target second place behind Celtic, expectations are already high ahead of a mouth-watering return to the top flight.
After some big talk, McGinn is acutely aware there will be plenty of top-flight foes determined to put Hibs back in their place next term. That does not faze him in the slightest.
“I think teams will come to Easter Road thinking they can maybe knock us down a peg or two,” he smiled. “We’re used to that. We have been the big scalp from playing in the Championship. I don’t think much will change in that regard. Teams will come to Easter Road, set their stall out and hope to avoid defeat.”
McGinn believes the permanent signing of Efe Ambrose on a two-year deal is exactly the sort of statement of intent that sums up their lofty amb-itions, despite three years in the comparative doldrums of the second tier.
“Getting Efe back is a bonus,” McGinn said. “It does show how far the club’s come that we’re able to get Efe in on loan in the first place, and then manage to keep him.
“He’s been brilliant for us and the fans have really taken a shine to him. He’s a great guy to have in the dressing-room. To get him
on board for two years is brilliant business.
“He was made to feel welcome at Easter Road. We’re a strong, tight group, so I’m not surprised he wanted to come back and be part of that.”
While Ambrose is a veteran of the top flight, it is easy to forget – given he is already a fully-fledged Scotland international – that McGinn only has three Premiership campaigns under his belt, the last of which ended in relegation with St Mirren in 2015.
The combative midfielder is adamant he is in much better shape, physically and technically, for the challenge this time.
“I’m absolutely a better player now than I was when I last played in the Premiership,” he said. “I was very raw and slightly chubbier when I was there with St Mirren.
“I like to think I’m the same in some regards, in terms of playing without fear. It all went pretty well when I first broke in and I
managed to hit the ground running at Hibs. There are always challenges that come your way, but I’m probably better prepared to deal with them now I’ve been at Hibs.
“I’m a little older, a little wiser and we’ve had a few setbacks so I think a lot comes with experience. I’m a more rounded player. I’m looking forward to proving that in the weeks and months ahead.”