BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
DEMETRI MITCHELL, the on-loan Hearts defender, has joked that he was steeled for a showdown for The Rock, such was the hype regarding the physicality he would face in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby.
Ultimately it was Hibernian who were left on the mat as Mitchell walked away from a 1-0 victory with a richly-merited man of the match award.
And while far from a pretty spectacle, the 21-year-old, who was unlucky not to mark his maiden game in maroon with a goal, was surprised the encounter was not more rough-and-ready.
“It was quick and a lot different to under-23 football but, with the way people were talking, I was expecting to be coming up against The Rock or something – but it was okay.
“We’ve got some good players who like to play football as well as mixing that with the physical, so I enjoyed it.
“For my first game for Hearts to be in an atmosphere like that, and then to win it, was special.
“I thought I had scored too, if I’m honest, but the keeper [Ofir Marciano] has clawed it out with a magnificent save. But we won the game and that’s the most important thing.”
Mitchell’s fine showing was all the more impressive given it was only his second ever senior appearance at any level.
His only other outing came in Manchester United’s final Premier League fixture of last season, when manager Jose Mourinho chose to field a second-string side against Crystal Palace due to the Europa League final against Ajax being just three days later.
The gifted defender excelled on that occasion for his parent club, helping the rookie Red Devils claim a 2-0 win in front of a sell-out 75,000 crowd at Old Trafford. Mitchell is adamant that steeled him to handle the pressure at Tynecastle.
“The atmosphere on Sunday was second to none,” continued Mitchell. “Because it was so close to the fans, you can hear everything and it just feels so intense. With that support we’ve got at Tynecastle it was a real boost for the boys.
“I think playing at Old Trafford at the end of last season helped me be ready for the derby – it braced me for playing in front of all of those fans, with the pressure and the atmosphere. Coming into this game I could say to myself ‘I’ve played in front of so many fans before and done okay, I can handle this’. And I feel like I did.
“There were 75,000 at Old Trafford, it was full that day. But because it was a derby there was more expectation.”
Given his only two professional matches have come at Old Trafford and in a major derby, tonight’s visit to the more modest surroundings and plastic pitch of New Douglas Park will provide a very different challenge for Mitchell.
However, he has been briefed and is ready for the test posed by Hamilton, who are seeking to bounce back from derby day disappointment after being dumped out of the Scottish Cup 2-0 by Motherwell.
He added: “I’ve been told it’s an astroturf pitch, which is something I haven’t played a competitive on for a while. The last time I would have played on a pitch like that would be under-16 level!
“So it’s something that will be kind of new to me, but it’s something I will thrive on and, more importantly, it’s another chance to show what I can do and help Hearts.
“At under-23 level at Manchester United we don’t play in big stadiums, we sometimes play in tiny places where there’s not much of a crowd. So it doesn’t make too much of a difference to me where I play. When I’m on a pitch and focused it just feels like a natural game to me.”
RICO QUITONGO JOINS HEARTS
Meanwhile, Hearts have completed the signing of Rico Quitongo, the son of former Jambos cult hero Jose Quitongo.
Quitongo, 18, has penned a contract until the end of the season after impressing on trial and will initially be part of Andy Kirk’s development squad.
The teenage left-back was available on a free transfer after being released by Hamilton earlier this month.
Quitongo, who spent the first half of this campaign on loan at Junior outfit Bo’ness United, failed to make a senior appearance after coming through the ranks at New Douglas Park but did feature in four Irn-Bru Cup ties for the club’s under-20s.
Kirk said: “Rico is athletic, he’s come into the group and mixed well. He’s played against most of the boys at younger age groups so they know a bit about him and have good things to say.
“He’s trained very well, his attitude’s been great and he’s worked very hard. I think he’s worthy of an opportunity but now the hard work begins.
“He’s got between now and the end of the season to prove he is worthy of another contract at Hearts.”
Quitongo’s father, Jose, was a cult hero in Gorgie from 1997 to 1999, and scored five goals in 45 appearances despite struggling to cement a starting berth under Jim Jefferies. He also turned out for the likes of Benfica, Hamilton, Livingston, Kilmarnock and Pollok during a journeyman career.
Rico’s brother Jai has also emerged a promising attacker in his own right, impressing for Morton and making one appearance for Scotland at under-21 level.