Liam Craig believes Hibs will enjoy the best years of his career as he prepares to pull on a green-and-white jersey for the first time tomorrow when Pat Fenlon’s side begin the countdown to the new season with a friendly against First Division Dumbarton.
The 26-year-old has been forced to wait almost six months for his debut having signed a pre-contract deal with the Easter Road outfit earlier in the year but now, he admitted, he can’t wait to get the next phase of his career underway.
Having started his career at Falkirk, the Glasgow-born star spent the past six years at McDiarmid Park, clocking up more than 200 matches for the Perth outfit as he earned himself a reputation as a goalscoring midfielder.
Hibs suffered more than most from his ability to sniff out a goal, Craig scoring seven times against them for Saints to add to the one he notched in his early years at Falkirk and that record, he believes, partially explains why Fenlon stepped in to persuade him to move to Edinburgh – although, he revealed, it didn’t take too much to convince him.
He said: “I just think I came to a time in my career when I was looking to move on from St Johnstone. I heard Hibs were interested and I thought it was definitely the move for me. When you look at the training facilities, the stadium and just the club as a whole, I thought it was where I wanted to play my football.
“I signed right away more or less on the pre-contract and now I am delighted to be here and looking forward to getting started.”
A first week’s training at East Mains where he has been getting to know his new team-mates including fellow midfielder Owain Tudur Jones – snapped up from Inverness Caley – has only confirmed Craig’s initial thoughts, the players disclosing he believes that Fenlon will also be looking for him, along with other experienced players such as skipper James McPake and Scott Robertson to help nurse the plethora of youngsters seeking to establish themselves as first-team regulars along.
He said: “Scoring goals is obviously a big part of my game but I’d like to think I will bring a bit more experience. I have been here a week and I think there’s a great blend of experience and youth when you see the young boys at the club. I think they are going to make a big impact next year.
“Boys like Jordon Forster, Danny Handling and Alex Harris did that last season and from what I have seen there’s definitely more to come through. So hopefully, along with others, I can help the young players as well. A lot of clubs now have to look to youth and from what I have seen so far there’s definitely a good calibre of player coming through so there is no reason why we cannot improve as a club.” However, it will be, of course, on matchdays when Craig will be judged by his new fans but, he believes, he can quickly win them over saying: “I have just turned 26 and I think I am getting to that stage in my career where I really want to kick on and I definitely feel that what Hibs have to offer in terms of facilities that I can do that here.
“I think the gaffer just wants me to do what I have been doing, obviously that’s what caught his eye. Craig helped guide St Johnstone to third place in the SPL ensuring that they’ll be entering, as will Hibs, the second qualifying round of the Europa League and, he believes, he can sense the same camaraderie within the ranks at Easter Road. He said: “At Saints we were a hard-working, honest bunch of boys. We were hard to beat and that’s what got us throuigh the season.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, but at the end of the day it’s all about results and from my first week at Hibs there’s a real togetherness about the squad, everyone has made me feel welcome.”
And Craig revealed he’s relishing the opportunity to regularly playing before crowds three and four times the size St Johnstone could ever hope to attract. He said: “It didn’t matter how well we did at St Johnstone, we were always going to get that hard core of 3000 to 3500 fans. It was disappointing in the sense that we were doing so well but we could not get the fans through the doors.
“I was at the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk and when I saw the fans at the end of that game I could not wait to come and play in front of that sort of fan base.”
Tomorrow’s match at the Bet Butler Stadium is, of course, the start of Hibs’ preparations towards their Europa League clash with either Drogheda or Malmo and having tasted that stage last season when Saints faced Turkish side Eskisehirspor, Craig again is impatient to sample Easter Road on such an occasion.
He told Hibs TV: “I have heard a lot about European nights at Easter Road. It’s going to be a difficult tie but it is something to look forward to/ It’s great to have that in pre-season, it gives that extra buzz about the place.”