IT’S six months since he left McDiarmid Park, but Hibs skipper Liam Craig still only has eyes for his old club St Johnstone.
But, as fondly as he may recall his days in Perth, the midfielder isn’t viewing Saints’ visit to Easter Road as some sort of nostalgia trip, more an opportunity to get them firmly in his sights as Terry Butcher’s side seek to close the gap between themselves and the Scottish Premiership’s top six.
As things stand today, St Johnstone are the team immediately above Hibs and while their four-point advantage means that Hibs can’t overtake them, victory would prove a huge step towards hauling themselves back into the top half of the table. Hibs, of course, beat St Johnstone in Perth in September when debut goals for Paul Heffernan and James Collins overturned Steve May’s early opener.
That win came as Hibs were midway through an unbeaten run of six matches, but since then they’ve managed just one league triumph, Craig taking his tally for the season to six as he claimed the winner against Partick Thistle, making him the Capital club’s top scorer, a title he retains to this day as he and his team-mates continue to struggle for goals.
Having been denied a seventh of the season only by the width of a post at Celtic Park, Craig, however, has no doubt the goals will again begin to flow as easily as the confidence which has clearly been lifted since Terry Butcher took over from Pat Fenlon last month.
The defeat in Glasgow was Butcher’s first in four games as Hibs manager, but even in that setback, insisted Craig, the Easter Road squad’s morale continues to grow, revealing even the thought of facing a side which had hammered Hearts 7-0 and then Motherwell 5-0 before suffering a similar humiliation themselves at the hands of Barcelona held no fears for the rejuvenated Edinburgh club.
He said: “No, there was no sense of trepidation at all, there’s just really positive vibes about the place now. The only disappointment we had against Celtic was that we didn’t take anything from the game. We’d spoken in the changing-room abut fine lines, that if you give Celtic an opportunity they will score.
“Unfortunately, the one time they cut us open they did exactly that, but we still remained very much in the game. Robbo [Scott Robertson] had a couple of shots, one well saved by Fraser Forster and the other which went inches wide, and I think it shows how much we frustrated them that by the end they were looking to put the ball into the corners to run the clock down. I’d never been there before and have that happen.”
Modesty prevented Craig mentioning his own close encounter with Forster’s goal until the incident was raised, the former Falkirk player saying: “I thought we’d got an equaliser. James Collins got to the bye-line, got the ball to Lewis Stevenson who gave me a great pass. Maybe I could have put my foot through it, but I went for the far post and unfortunately hit it. Then Paul Cairney couldn’t get the rebound out from under his feet and Emilio Izaguirre got a good block in.
“It was a bit like the previous week against Partick Thistle when the ball just wouldn’t drop for one of us in their box until late into added-on time when James equalised. But if we keep doing that then sooner rather than later things will change in our favour.
“However, if you look at the positives from the Celtic game, we frustrated a really good team, one that will win this league quite comfortably. Other than the goal, we limited them to a couple of chances from outside the box and were right in the game until the final whistle. We had our game plan and stuck to it.”
The return of experienced striker Heffernan, who is recovering from a thigh muscle injury, and teenage winger Alex Harris, nearing full fitness after breaking a bone in his ankle on the opening day of the season, also gives Craig confidence that a side which is the lowest scoring in the top flight – just ten goals in 16 matches – will soon be finding the back of the net on a more regular basis. He said: “The lack of goals isn’t a real concern. We are creating chances, we have a good squad with players who can score goals, the work-rate is there but sometimes we are a bit rushed putting the ball into the box. As we grow in confidence, though, we will be more patient around the box, but the positive thing is we are creating chances.
“We’ve got guys like Paul Heffernan and Alex Harris who will hopefully be back in the near future, creative players who can score, to go along with the others already in the team.”
As such Craig insisted Hibs could look forward to the hectic Christmas and New Year schedule with more than a degree of optimism with three of their four matches over that period at Easter Road, the first of which is the arrival of St Johnstone on Saturday.
He said: “We’re looking forward to this spell, we feel they are games we can win.
“We’ve spoken previously about our desire to make Easter Road a difficult place for visiting teams and the fact we’ve got three out of our next four at home gives us a chance to start doing that.
“St Johnstone are first up, they are just above us in the table, they are the team we are trying to catch at the moment. It will be the first time I’ve played against them at Easter Road so it’s a game I’m really looking forward to.”