Former Hibs striker Keith Wright believes the Easter Road outfit have unearthed the “new Pat McGinlay” in the shape of Liam Craig, who has already notched six goals from midfield.
McGinlay became a fans’ idol – and the scourge of opposition defences – in the late 1980s and through the bulk of the 1990s with his ability to ghost into the penalty area for vital strikes, regularly claiming a double-figure goals haul. Craig is being tipped to do exactly that after claiming a superb winner against Partick Thistle at Firhill to take Pat Fenlon’s side joint fourth in the league, and Skol Cup hero Wright believes the former Falkirk and St Johnstone star will be disappointed if he doesn’t add plenty more to his tally this season.
Having seen Craig grow in confidence in recent weeks, Wright has detected similarities with his former team-mate McGinlay, who hit the net 79 times in 347 appearances in a green-and-white shirt, underlining his status as a goal-scoring midfielder by becoming top scorer for Celtic during his one season at Parkhead.
Wright, SFA Football Development Officer for Midlothian, said: “I think one of the biggest things for Hibs over the past couple of seasons or so has been getting someone to score from midfield – someone who gets into the box and beyond the strikers like Pat McGinlay used to do. Pat pulled us out of many situations over the years I was at Easter Road with that ability of his to arrive in the box unmarked at just the right time to score goals out of nothing, goals which won us matches or earned us a draw.
“He was regularly in double figures at the end of the season but he’d be disappointed if he came off at the end of a match if he’d not scored because he looked on himself as being a goalscorer. Like any good striker, he was always looking to claim a goal for himself. I remember one time having a shot go in off the underside of the bar and Pat was there to tap it into the net and then had a fight with me for the goal even though it was already over the line. Pat was a big player for the team with the goals he scored but he also had his midfield duties and both he and Brian Hamilton were probably the two fittest boys at the club at that time.
“His goals won him that move to Celtic and it says a lot that in going to an Old Firm club where they create so many chances – their strikers are always up nearer the 20-goal mark – Pat ended up top scorer even though he was playing right midfield rather than through the middle as he did at Hibs. Then he came back to us and it was as if he’d never been away, he just kept on scoring. The fans loved him, he was always treated well by the supporters and that helps a player relax and play to the best of his ability. They knew there was always the chance of Pat popping up with a goal whatever situation we were in and it’s not until you are out on the pitch you appreciate just what having the fans right behind you can do.”
Wright has no doubt that Craig is already well on his way to becoming a fans’ favourite just like McGinlay but, his goals apart, he believes Fenlon’s strikeforce of James Collins and Paul Heffernan will enjoy having their goalscoring burden eased by the added threat their team-mate brings. He said: “I’ve seen Liam in Hibs’ last couple of home games and he has definitely improved as the season has gone on. He seems to be growing in confidence which is a big thing for any player and I think it showed the way he took his goal at Firhill, it was a fantastic finish – and with his right foot.
“At the start of the season, that was the sort of game Hibs might have lost 1-0 or drawn 0-0 but now guys like James Collins and Paul Heffernan will be delighted to see people like Liam, Scott Robertson and the French lad Abdellah Zoubir willing to get forward, create chances and also chip in with a few goals. As a striker when you are left up front on your tod, your role becomes more a case of keeping the ball and retaining possession rather than thinking about scoring a goal, but Collins and Heffernan will be pleased to see Hibs getting the ball into the wider areas.
“The big difference for me was seeing Alan Maybury hit the bye-line against St Mirren for Heffernan to score. Having someone like Liam hitting the penalty area with well-timed runs will also be welcomed by the strikers. It’s another threat for opposition defences to deal with and if a defender’s attention is distracted by checking to see where he might be then that can offer them that split-second which so often is the difference between him getting a challenge in and the ball ending up in the back of the net.”
Craig has been recognised as a regular goalscorer in recent years, but he last hit double figures four seasons ago. Wright reckons he’ll be bitterly disappointed if he doesn’t at least match the ten he notched for St Johnstone back in the 2009/10 season, and insisted he has a couple of advantages over McGinlay in that he appears to have inherited Leigh Griffiths’ mantle as Hibs’ penalty taker while also being viewed as something of a dead-ball expert.
Wright said: “Of all the goals Pat scored only one was from the spot. He was never able to wrestle the ball off Darren Jackson when it came to penalties.
“Liam also possesses a great delivery which offers a terrific threat with others able to get on the end of his crosses but, when the opportunity arises, he’ll also be wanting to have a shot at goal from free-kicks. Add penalties and free-kicks to his ability to score from open play and he’ll get well into double figures, no problem.”