Told he was no longer wanted at Easter Road, the easy option for Liam Craig would have been to take up one of the offers which had come his way. But, the Hibs captain admitted today, he’d have been haunted forever by the feeling he had deserted a sinking ship.
While it’s fair to say that, if the man who told him he could go – former boss Terry Butcher – was still in charge of the Capital club Craig would be long gone, the midfielder insists he is simply delighted to have hung around and to now have the chance to right some wrongs.
He knows winning the complete forgiveness of a support still hurting not only from relegation but the manner in which last season fell apart won’t be easy but, he believes, under new head coach Alan Stubbs, he and his team-mates can at least start building some bridges.
He feels that process is already underway, agreeing with Stubbs’ assertion following their performance against Dundee United in the fifth of their six pre-season matches last Sunday, that fans will be more encouraged than they probably believed possible only a few weeks ago.
A penalty shoot-out defeat by Hamilton which robbed them of their Premiership status was, Craig readily concedes, the low point of his career, but now the former Falkirk and St Johnstone player is adamant better days lie ahead.
He said: “There will be some fans who will never forgive us for it and rightly so because this is a very proud club and I’ll always look back on it as the darkest moment of my career. It was a horrible summer.
“People aim a lot of things at you and one of the worst is that you do not care. That definitely wasn’t the case at all.
“I’m not going to blame the management last year. We all have to take responsibility because none of us did our job properly. The easiest thing would have been to leave – I am not going to sit here and say there weren’t opportunities to go.
“Did I want to go? Looking back now there was a stage when I probably did because a lot had happened between the players and the management at the time. Terry Butcher had made it clear he did not want a few of us to stay and, when it comes to that, I think the only option is to leave.
“But it would never have sat well on me because it would have been as if I had just walked away from a sinking ship.”
Rather than Craig, it was Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas who departed, sacked by new chief executive Leeann Dempster, who then set about bringing in a replacement, a long search ending with the appointment of Everton Under-21 coach Stubbs.
The change, Craig insisted, is there for all to see. He said: “Alan Stubbs came in and told us right away he wanted us to stay. The way he has spoken to the players, the way he is working with us. The whole place is different.
“The response from the players coming back for pre-season has been first class. We’ve made steady progess but there’s still a lot of hard work to do. We want to start winning the fans back and having a really positive season will be another step towards doing that.
“We want Easter Road to be a happy place for our fans to come, enjoy their football and to go away knowing that their team has played well and got a positive result.”
The early indications are, Craig believes, promising, with the supporters encouraged by the style of play Stubbs demands, the route-one football of last season abandoned in favour of a patient, passing game without losing sight of the primary objective of winning. He said: “I think the supporters who’d been at our away games appreciated the way we’d been playing and responded to it. People would say we should be going away to these places, winning comfortably, passing the ball and keeping it for long spells.
“But Dundee United’s expectation will be to finish third or fourth in the Premiership and yet we were the better team for long spells, playing a brand of football that the players are capable of but also a brand of football our fans want to see. They really got behind us and the response at half-time, even when we lost the goal and at the end of the game was excellent. The last time we’d played United we lost 3-1 at Easter Road and they missed two penalties so the fans will, hopefully, have taken great encouragement from Sunday’s game.
“The boys see what the manager is trying to implement and we are taking that into games. Obviously, it’s not going to work every time. Against different opposition we might have to do one or two things differently.
“But the manager has been great. He’s spoken to us and told us he doesn’t want us to become a predictable team. Some weeks we won’t be great but, at the end of the day, it’s about getting the result.
“The manager wants us to be a winning team and, if we can do it playing great fooball even better. The players are capable of doing it and we are definitely responding to what he is asking us to do.”
Pre-season and the serious stuff are, of course, two entirely different propositions and, with Capital rivals Hearts and Rangers also vying for that one automatic promotion place through winning the Championship, Craig acknowledges it’s going to be a tough season.
However, he insisted the “big three” will write off any of the other seven sides at their peril. He said: “We are in this league because we were not good enough last year for whatever reason.
“We won’t be disrespectful to anyone. Everyone will be talking about us, Hearts and Rangers but I am sure the boys at Falkirk, Queen of the South and so on will be sitting in their dressing-rooms saying they are capable of taking the points from us. None of us will be thinking it’s only about Hearts, Rangers and ourselves. Losing to Raith Rovers at Easter Road in the Scottish Cup, being beaten at home by Hamilton and conceding three goals here against Stranraer shows if the mindset and attitude isn’t right then even a part-time team will hurt you.
“I still live in the Falkirk area so I went to a few games at the Falkirk Stadium last season. There are good teams in this league and we will be in for a hard game every week.”
Craig believes that within a few weeks Stubbs’ players will know exactly where they stand. He said: “We play Rangers, Hearts and Falkirk in the first month, which should give us a great indication of just where each team is. We are looking forward to it. We’ve had a long pre-season but the boys are ready for it. There will be no excuses.”