Most Hibs fans will view tomorrow’s Betfred Cup against League Two Montrose as a gentle introduction to the new season, another chance for Neil Lennon’s players to fine-tune their fitness ahead of their return to the Premiership.
But Easter Road striker Brian Graham is only too well aware of the pitfalls such matches carry, Ross County’s elation at winning the competition only a few months earlier evaporating as they fell at the first hurdle, failing to negotiate their way through the newly-introduced group stage.
Graham more than played his part in trying to ensure that wasn’t the case, scoring six goals in their four matches, only to find that wasn’t enough as they Staggies could only manage a draw against Raith Rovers before losing away to Alloa Athletic.
Even a hat-trick in a 7-0 drubbing of Cove Rangers in their final game couldn’t rescue the situation as that day at Hampden when County had beaten Alan Stubbs’ Hibs in the final suddenly became a distant memory.
As fate would have it, County’s first group match was against tomorrow’s opponents, 29-year-old Graham’s 86th minute penalty enough for Jim McIntyre’s side to edge the win.
So for those anticipating a goal-fest from Lennon’s players, there are warnings aplenty as Graham admitted.
“We were champions and were knocked out,” he said. “So you can’t take things lightly. It was a great day for me and my family when we won it, but that’s in the past.
“It’s still early doors, but this is the competitive matches starting and we have to focus on them.
“On a personal level I got off to a flier last season so hopefully it’s the same this year. I’d happily settle for six in four again. We’re at home and we need to get off to a good start.”
Some may think tomorrow’s match will have something of a pre-season feel to it, coming as it does hard on the heels of friendlies against Dunfermline, Sunderland and Berwick Rangers.
But Graham insisted: “We’ve put in a lot of hard training. Everyone got a wee spell here and there but the competitive football is starting so the mindset chances.”
Hibs, of course, go into the game without the departed Jason Cummings, their top scorer in each of the past three seasons, while Grant Holt and James Keatings have also departed leaving Graham, new signing Simon Murray and 19-year-old Oli Shaw as Lennon’s options up-front ... at least for the time being.
As everyone is aware, Lennon is looking to add more firepower, the name of Scottish Cup hero Anthony Stokes continually linked with a third spell at Easter Road, while Welsh internationalist Simon Church is the latest to be offered a trial with the Capital club.
Knowing it is a matter of when rather than if new faces arriving, Graham admitted both he and Murray have the chance to state their own cases, working on the general rule that it’s hard to oust the player holding the jersey if he is doing well.
Replacing the 20-plus goals Cummings scored three seasons in succession would, as Graham pointed out, be ideal. However, there was an over-reliance on the 21-year-old and obviously the burden would be eased considerably if they were shared around.
He said: “Jason played well week in, week out and did very well. The club got whatever they got for him but it was time for Jason to go, I firmly believe that. He’s a young lad, his goals helped us get back up to the Premiership, so good luck to him.”
At the moment Graham and Murray are Lennon’s only experienced hitmen, although Lennon has recognised the potential in Shaw, a prolific scorer for the club’s development squad last season, by drafting him into his first-team squad along with midfielders Scott Martin and Fraser Murray.
But that is a situation that will change, according to Graham. He said: “I think you need four strikers at the club fighting for their positions. Someone will be coming in, it’s only a matter of when.
“We still have the bulk of the squad, although there have been a few departures. We need to get numbers back up, there are young players doing well and getting themselves into the squad, but I am sure the gaffer will have a few things going on in the background that we don’t know about as players. But whoever comes in will be coming into a good dressing-room. We are a tight knit little group.
“As things stand Simon and me – if that’s who the gaffer goes with – have the chance to do ourselves justice and sometimes that’s all it takes to win your place in the team.”
Shaw has certainly made an impression in pre-season, scoring against both Dunfermline and Berwick and only prevented from doing so when his shot from Graham’s knockdown hit both the bar and post late in Lewis Stevenson’s testimonial match against English Championship side Sunderland.
Graham said: “It’s still early days for Oli, but he certainly has an eye for goal. He’s got a lot to work on but he has great potential and he’s only going to get stronger and better at this club.”
While Shaw was scoring at Shielfield Park, Graham, captain for the night as Lennon rested the bulk of his first-team regulars, was left red-faced, sending a penalty kick high over the bar.
However, he insisted that miss won’t bother him, adamant he’ll happily volunteer to take Hibs next spot kick.
The former Morton, East Stirling, Raith Rovers, Dundee United and St Johnstone player said: “It was the first one I’d missed in years.
“I’ll still go looking for the ball. I’m a confident player. Tuesday night wasn’t to be, but while I don’t like missing, I’d rather it was in a pre-season friendly against Berwick than in a league or cup match.
“It would have been nice to get off the mark. Every striker likes to get an early goal every season, but that chance is gone, I’m not going to worry about it.”
As fate would have it, the draw for the League Cup sections has also pitched Hibs against Ross County, Lennon taking his players to Dingwall next Friday night for a match which will be televised live.
Some may see it as an early chance for the Capital side to lay down a marker for the coming months but, insisted Graham, Hibs’ exploits against Premiership teams over the past couple of seasons has said it all.
He said: “We know what we have in our dressing-room so we go into the Premiership with high hopes, although we’ll be keeping any targets to ourselves.
“I don’t think the game against Ross County will tell anyone anything. Last season we beat Hearts and went very close against Aberdeen, the second best team in the country, in the semi-final, beaten only by that unlucky deflection.”