After over two decades of dreaming, Hibs defender Darren McGregor admits it took only 45 minutes for his maiden Edinburgh derby experience to descend into a nightmare at Tynecastle.
From using jumpers for goalposts on the streets of Leith as a kid, McGregor’s desire to play in Hibs-Hearts tussles was reinforced when he used to sneak into Easter Road and marvel at the defensive masterclass delivered by cult hero Frank Sauzee.
Last Sunday’s derby was everything that the 30-year-old thought it would, even if a fraught first half did not go as planned.
Goals from Arnaud Djoum and Sam Nicholson put Hearts in a commanding half-time position in the William Hill Scottish Cup fifth round clash, before dramatic late efforts from Jason Cummings and Paul Hanlon set up Tuesday’s replay.
And former Rangers and St Mirren player McGregor is now relishing his second all-Edinburgh showdown after wondering if he would ever play in one.
He said: “It’s well known I’m a Hibs fan so for me to play in a derby, it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in football.
“Coming out at Tynecastle, it’s an intimidating arena at the best of times. But to go there as a Hibs player and to see all your own people and the crowd backing you, it was tremendous – a right buzz.
“From a youngster at six, seven playing football on the streets of Leith, you always imagine or dream you’d play in a game of that significance.
“In football there’s much bigger games but growing up in Leith, the significance of it to me was huge.
“I can tick that off list and to get the chance of another one so quickly, it’s great.
“The adrenalin and the buzz you get, and it’s no disrespect to any other teams, but to be involved in a derby – it’s a level above with the excitement that comes with it.
“It was interesting to say the least. We came in at half-time and were scratching our heads, thinking, how are we 2-0 down?
“After they scored two goals it starts to turn into a nightmare and we’re thinking: ‘we need to get going here’. But we always believed in our own ability.”
McGregor will proudly walk through the players’ entrance on Tuesday evening but admits gaining access to Easter Road as a kid was a bit more tricky.
McGregor explained: “Me and my mates used to sneak in. We used to climb over the wall in the old East Stand, we were over that and scarpered up the rubble and it was a free for all.
“There were five of us in my family so money was obviously tight and to ask your mum and dad for an extra £10, £15 to go and see Hibs was a bit of a push.
“If you got caught you just got flung back out, there were no severe repercussions.
“I probably saved a good couple of hundred pound and I hope (Hibs chairman) Rod Petrie does not chap on the door and ask for it back now.
“I probably only had a couple of years watching Hibs because I was playing for my youth team, Leith Athletic, and we started to play on a Saturday at Under-13s, 14s.”
McGregor is in no doubt who is favourite player was from that era.
He added: “Frank Sauzee was my number one. To see a player of his quality in the Scottish league, I think it would be very hard to see guys with that technical ability and leadership into the Scottish game just now.
“To see a centre half take free-kicks and being so relaxed on the ball, it was a joy to watch. He was my idol.”
Home advantage did not make any difference to Hearts last weekend as they surrendered a commanding lead.
But McGregor, who joined Hibs last August on a two-year deal after negotiating his release from Rangers, reckons the Easter Road faithful could be the difference – with the tie heading for a 20,400 sell-out.
He added: “With the tickets sales, I was half thinking it might be close to capacity being a Tuesday night when the Champions League is on but it now shows the support and interest we’re now gathering through good performances.
“To potentially sell 20,000 tickets on a Tuesday night is phenomenal.
“We will need the fans behind us because they do act as a 12th man when they’re at their peak.
“For me, being at home and having the crowd behind us will be an added incentive for us to go out there and perform.”