If Terry Butcher is looking for anyone to help put the finishing touches to his dossiers on Hibs’ possible play-off opponents he could do far worse than put in a call to former Easter Road skipper Ian Murray.
As boss of Dumbarton, Murray saw his Championship side lose only twice in eight clashes against Hamilton and Falkirk, the two sides who last night began their own battle for the chance to face Hibs in next week’s two-legged shootout for a place in the Scottish Premiership. The Bairns were beaten home and away by the Sons, while Accies lost twice in Dumbarton as Murray’s side mounted their own bid for a place in the play-offs, only to see those hopes fade in the closing stages although they did whip Hamilton 4-1 in their penultimate match.
Murray – who yesterday signed a new two-year deal at the club despite speculation linking him to the vacant St Mirren managerial post – and his assistant Jack Ross were at Easter Road on Saturday to see Butcher’s side fail to take their last chance to avoid the two-legged relegation decider.
On the evidence of that defeat by Kilmarnock, a result which left Hibs with a record of just one win in 19 games, the life-long fan admitted his old club will be up against it whether it’s Falkirk or Hamilton they’ll face.
He saw at first hand Hibs struggle to find the back of the net as Butcher’s players ended the regular season with a miserly 31 goals in their 38 league games. But for Falkirk and Hamilton, it was goals galore, the Bairns hitting 66 and Accies 67 in just 36 matches.
While James Collins and Liam Craig ended up Hibs’ top scorers with just six apiece, again, it’s been an entirely different story for the Championship sides. Rory Loy heads Falkirk’s scoring chart with 21 so far, while at New Douglas Park the goals have been shared around, with James Keatings claiming 15 and Anthony Andreu and ex-Hibs striker Mickael Antoine-Curier netting 13 each, while Louis Longridge and Jason Scotland have eight apiece.
To that end Murray believes it’s vital Hibs sieze the initiative immediately in next Wednesday’s first leg. He said: “I haven’t seen Hibs too often but what struck me at the weekend was that after 15 or 20 minutes Kilmarnock would have been quite happy. In the opening minutes Hibs had a lot of possession, won a number of corners but there weren’t any shots on goal.
“At some point someone has to pull the trigger, the ball might go over the bar or go wide but shots at goal get the crowd going. Then Kris Boyd scored and it was like a dagger in the heart for Hibs. You concede one and you are struggling, lose a second and you are up against it – massively.
“Both Falkirk and Hamilton love to attack. They are quick, play at a high tempo, love getting forward to play wee patterns and one-twos. If you don’t start well and press them or work hard enough they’ll play the ball around you and up front they can be a real handful.”
On the other hand, Murray believes their instinct to drive forward can leave gaps at the back, although that prompts questions over whether Hibs have the armoury to take advantage of such situations. The return to action of experienced striker Paul Heffernan can only help in that department while, Murray pointed out, Championship sides tend not to enjoy defenders of the calibre of those possessed at the higher level.
The manager of a side which scored 65 goals but lost 64 in finishing fifth, Murray said: “There’s a different level of defender in the Championship, there’s a lot more goals, more mistakes. We were a team which won a lot of games without a clean sheet but we always felt we had a chance.”
Murray believes the play-off system is geared towards the Premiership side, pointing out that if Falkirk were to prevail then Gary Holt’s players will be contending with six high-pressure games in the space of 19 days.
However, on the other side of the coin, he feels the artificial pitches boasted by Hamilton and Falkirk will give the Championship sides an edge. He said: “I know Hibs have their own astro pitch at East Mains and no doubt they’ll be making good use of it between now and going to either Falkirk or Hamilton. That pitch is different to either of the ones they’re going to be playing on.
“Both of them are fantastic, as good as you will get anywhere – but they’re not grass. It’s hard to explain the difference, it’s a bit quicker than grass, the ball runs away a bit more and the bounce is different; some players can handle it, some can’t.” Murray is concerned that Hibs’ ten-day break between the Kilmarnock game and the first of their two play-off matches could count against them. He is also wary that confidence levels will be a factor, with Hibs’ eventual opponents poised to go into the double-header on the high of having “reached a final”.
“Hibs’ confidence is low at the moment, no doubt about that, and they’ll have had ten days to think about it before going back into action,” he said. “The break will let Terry see Falkirk and Hamilton play twice, home and away, but I’m not sure having ten days off before a big game is ideal.
“I’d imagine they might have a bounce game or two but that might have to be among themselves as they’ll struggle to find opposition at this stage of the season. Having the first game away from home, even if it is on plastic, is a plus. The Falkirk and Hamilton players will have seen a lot more of Hibs on television than Terry’s players will have seen of them. I’m sure come next Wednesday Terry and his backroom staff will have their squad fully briefed but that’s not quite the same thing as having played against these guys.
“So they’ll have that experience going back to Easter Road in front of their own fans with a good chance Easter Road will be a near sell-out going by the Dunfermline game the other year and last weekend’s match with Killie, while I’m sure there will be a good away support as well.
“Falkirk, if they were to get through, will have had a tough schedule of high-pressure games in a very short space of time which can be tiring but if they do so then they’ll be on a high. Hamilton will be likewise but there’s that little question as to whether they’ll still be suffering a bit of a hangover having lost out on the title itself on the final day of the season despite beating Morton 10-2.
“It was quite a remarkable end to our season, we were up at Dundee who needed to win and at 2-1 down we had a stonewall penalty turned down while their goalkeper pulled off a fantastic save, two incidents in which the outcome could have been stood on it’s head.”
Murray’s close affinity with Hibs means he has his fingers crossed Butcher’s players can clutch this last lifeline but, he admitted, it’s going to take a huge effort from each and every one of those players in green and white. He said: “To my mind Falkirk and Hamilton are probably the two best footballing teams in the Championship – as tough as you will get.”