The mood at Hibs has changed markedly for the better over the past few months and Liam Craig is revelling in it.
However, the revitalised captain feels he still has a long way to go before he wins over supporters and believes some may never forgive him for skippering the club to relegation last season.
Following a wretched first season at the club, a missed penalty in the August defeat by Hearts did little to boost the midfielder’s standing in the eyes of his critics. He subsequently found himself in and out of the team in the early weeks of Alan Stubbs’ reign.
However, Craig has now started nine of Hibs’ last 11 matches, a run in which the team’s only defeat came on penalties against Dundee United in the League Cup in October. The 27-year-old is enjoying his football at present, with head coach Stubbs telling the Evening News this week that he felt he was getting back towards his best following a “difficult time”.
Despite this, however, Craig senses there are still plenty Hibs fans who are yet to warm to him. “I’ve still got a sense I need to win the fans over,” he said. “I was as big to blame as anyone else for last season – I’d never shoulder the blame on anyone else. I said at the end of last season some fans will never forgive you for what happened last year, and rightly so. It was a disaster.
“But all I can do is try and play well every week and score goals and win games for Hibs. As long as I can do that I’m on the right track.”
In the immediate aftermath of relegation, Craig looked certain to be part of a mass exodus from the club. However, upon meeting Stubbs for the first time, he opted to stay put and try and make amends for what had gone wrong last season. He has no regrets about his decision.
“The manager was the reason I stayed,” he explained. “I had a good conversation with him at the start of the season – you knew right from the off that he was the man that could really kick Hibs forward, and I think he’s doing that. It’s not going to happen overnight, and there’s still a long way to go, but I think we’re seeing now that we’re getting there.
“We’ve done well in the last few weeks, but we’ve got a big period coming up with games against Falkirk, Alloa, Raith Rovers, Rangers and Hearts.
“It sounds silly after what happened last year, but – I’ve been speaking to David Gray about it as well – it’s such a great club and you just want to do well for it. If I’d left in the summer that would have been the biggest regret, because we never did well last year and you can’t hide away from that.
“And I look at myself as much as anything. Aye, there was other stuff here that I could probably not have done anything about, but you have to look at yourself. I’m just happy now that I’m still here, playing and scoring.”
Craig knows that, despite Hibs’ eight-game unbeaten run in the Championship, they are nowhere near the finished article yet. However, he feels the progress being made under Stubbs is genuine.
“We’re not successful yet – we’re still fourth in the league and we’re not going to get carried away,” he said. “But right from the off when I spoke to the manager, I think the biggest thing he did was come in and restore confidence and belief in the boys who were left from last season. I think he did that right away.
“People say we had a poor start to the season, and it was, but you can’t say we weren’t in any of the games. Even the Hearts game at Tynecastle – the penalty’s a massive game-changer. Falkirk at home – the first half we were so dominant without getting the goal.
“No-one’s beaten us by more than a goal. It’s not like teams are running over the top of us. Then look at Cowdenbeath a couple of weeks ago. We won 2-1 and we weren’t dominant in that game, but I think it shows how we’re turning it round, that we’re going into these games and coming away with results.
“We’re looking more dangerous going forward. There’s no panic. Maybe at the start of the season that element was there from last season, but look at last weekend at Alloa – even when we went a goal down there was no panic, and we had the confidence to get the goals to get us into the next round of the cup. We’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Craig feels he is yet to show the form that prompted Hibs to bring him to Easter Road, but believes that the mood around the club is the best it has been since he arrived.
“I think my own form could be better,” he admitted. “I had a spell last year when I was scoring goals and playing well, but this is probably the best it’s been for a long time here.
“When we’re winning and getting good results it makes everyone else’s job easier. It makes the manager’s job easier to come and do press conferences, and you see the reaction from the fans as well.
“Look back to the Dundee United game in the cup and the response we got from the fans that night – they could see that things are changing. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re getting there. We’re definitely on the right track.”
A six-game winning streak away from home is evidence of that. Hibs will attempt to make it seven on the spin today when they visit Falkirk, a club close to Craig’s heart.
The midfielder spent two years with the Bairns at the start of his career, while he also met his wife, who is a member of staff at Falkirk, during his time at the club.
“There’s one or two people still there from my time. I was in speaking to the boy who does the programme on Monday. It’s a long time – it’s nearly seven years since I left – but it’s still a great club and I’m looking forward to going back.
“My wife still works there part time – I met her there. She wants a Hibs win on Saturday as well, because she won’t get a win bonus if Falkirk win! It’s a club I hold in high regard, I still live in the area, and I meet a lot of the fans and hold them in high regard.”