Captain Craig eyes the final frontier with Hibees

Liam Craig tussles with Rowan Vine as Hibs prepare for tomorrow's clash with Ross County. Pic: SNS
Liam Craig tussles with Rowan Vine as Hibs prepare for tomorrow's clash with Ross County. Pic: SNS
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Liam Craig has got to within touching distance of a Scottish Cup final, his hopes of a glory day out dashed in the cruellest of fashions – a penalty shoot-out.

But today the newly-installed Hibs captain admitted he has his eyes firmly fixed on making it a hat-trick of finals for the Easter Road club even before a ball is kicked.

And, as fate would have it, he’ll begin the Capital outfit’s assault on the competition against Ross County, his very first opponents in the Scottish Cup, hoping the outcome in Dingwall tomorrow is exactly the same as seven years ago.

As a Falkirk player, Craig enjoyed a replay triumph at Victoria Park thanks to a goal from Alan Gow, the first match having ended in a 1-1 draw.

The Bairns were crushed 5-1 in the next round by Hibs, the goals raining in from Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Ivan Sproule, Gary Caldwell and Steven Fletcher. Since then, midfield ace Craig has been forced to settle for a couple of close shaves with going all the way in the Cup.

In his first season with St Johnstone, the final beckoned for the then-First Division side as Daniel McBreen fired them into an extra-time lead against Rangers only for Nacho Novo to equalise, leaving the Ibrox side to triumph on a penalty shoot-out before surviving a major fright at the hands of Queen of the South before getting their hands on the trophy.

“When Danny put us in front I think everybody felt we could go on to win it,” said Craig. “But Nacho Novo equalised and Rangers went on to win the penalty shoot-out.

“It was really disappointing because, no disrespect to Queen of the South, it would have been a cup final we could have won.”

Craig’s experience that night opened his eyes to the thin line separating success and failure but, as Hibs again seek to end their 111-year wait to get their hands on the trophy, he insisted that as unlikely as many would view the prospect of the Edinburgh club reaching a third successive final, that is the sole aim of Terry Butcher and his players.

He said: “Okay, Hibs were beaten in both of those finals but, as a football player, you want to be successful and playing in Cup finals is part of that. I’ve been to a few semi-finals but through bad luck, or by being beaten by the better team on the day, it’s not happened.

“It’s not easy to get to a final for any team but now it’s a new season with a different group of players and different management. We are excited about Saturday’s game. We think we can go there – no – we know we can go there and get a result and get a cup run underway.”

Given that Hibs have not beaten the Staggies in six meetings and lost to Derek Adams’ side in quarter-final replay in Dingwall three-and-a-half years ago, Craig’s claim may appear rather bold but he believes the renewed sense of self-belief instilled by new boss Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas will play it’s part. He said: “Everyone keeps talking about Hibs’ Cup record and that we’ve never beaten Ross County but we are positive and looking forward to it.

“We’ve done our work on the training ground this week, everyone knows their job and there will be no excuses. Going up there we are ready. We’ll be taking a good support with us, the fans expect it and that’s what we are aiming to do.”

Craig accepts, however, that with each passing year it’s inevitable that the first question as the Scottish Cup approaches will be: “Can Hibs win it?”

But, while he naturally hopes he can be the first Hibs captain to take hold of the trophy since Bobby Atherton in 1902, he said: “You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.

“Being captain of Hibs is special and I want to do it to the best of my ability.

“We have a good squad of players and I think it is important we talk about the squad, not just the starting eleven because if you are going to get to a cup final and be successful you are going to have to have everyone play their part.

“Ross County away is a difficult start but Hibs had a tough run to get to the final last season. It doesn’t matter who you are playing, whether it’s a team from a lower league or a side that’s above you in the league, it’s always going to be hard. You are only four or five games away from the final so everyone wants to win. We are no different.”

Although Craig exudes an air of confidence, a lack of goals – none scored in 522 minutes since the now-injured Paul Heffernan netted in a 1-1 draw with Celtic more than a month ago – is, Craig accepts, causing Hibs fans some anxiety.

But, again, he firmly believes that five-game barren run will come to an end tomorrow.

He said: “The manager has brought a freshness to things. He wants us to get the ball quicker, to put it into good areas, to get it into the box and have plenty of shots. The boys have responded and I think we showed that against St Mirren last Saturday. We have to take the positives from that match.

“We were hard to beat, we put a lot of pressure on them, got a lot of balls into the box and, if we keep doing that, the goals will come.”

As things stand, Craig himself is Hibs’ top scorer with six so far this season, although the most recent of them came at the beginning of last month, the winner against Partick Thistle, a record he admits he’s keen to correct.

He said: “That’s something I take on myself, I always want to score.

“When I came to the club the manager [Pat Fenlon] and now the new gaffer expect that of me. Whether I end up top scorer or not, I stil want to score goals.

“I haven’t done so for a few weeks and that’s something I want to put right as soon as possible.”

There are, though, others Craig believes hold the same desire. He said: “There are goals in the team, James Collins, Scott Robertson and myself have all scored this season so it’s important we get back on the goals trail.”

And, although the personnel may have changed somewhat from last season, Craig believes Hibs haven’t lost any of the character which was on display in that epic semi-final comeback from three goals at half-time down to beat Falkirk.

He said: “ I think a lot of credit went to Hibs in that game, they showed great character and courage but we’ve done that this season, we’ve gone behind at difficult places like McDiarmid Park and, earlier in the season, Kilmarnock, yet come back to win.

“That’s definitely the character I am sure will come through tomorrow, as will the goals, to get us the result.”