Ian MURRAY trudged off the pitch at Easter Road knowing the operation he was about to undergo three days later was unlikely to cause him as much pain as the defeat Hibs had just suffered at the hands of Capital rivals Hearts.
Goals from Andy Webster, Ryan McGowan and Rudi Skacel had twisted the knife as new boss Pat Fenlon’s first taste of an Edinburgh derby ended in bitter disappointment, Hibs’ consolation that day also coming from a man in maroon as Jambos defender Marius Zaliukas put through his own net.
But while conceding the Gorgie outfit will go into the third clash of the season between Edinburgh’s big two as favourites once again, their status understandable given a run of nine matches unbeaten against the Hibees – not to mention a far superior standing in the SPL table – Murray insisted Paulo Sergio’s side will face an entirely different proposition on Sunday.
Such has been the revolution conducted by Fenlon in the intervening few weeks, only four of those who started in a green and white shirt on January 2 are likely to do so again this time round, namely goalkeeper Graham Stack, Paul Hanlon, Lewis Stevenson and Leigh Griffiths.
Today the likes of George Francomb, James McPake, Pa Kujabi, Matt Doherty, Jorge Claros, Roy O’Donovan and Tom Soares are in line to brave the white-hot cauldron that is Tynecastle on derby day, while midfielders Isaiah Osbourne and Ivan Sproule miss out through suspension.
Murray himself will again be missing, for the 11th match in succession, as his recovery from surgery proves to be slower than anticipated, but he firmly believes Fenlon’s derby-day rookies won’t be fazed by the occasion, confidence around Easter Road having risen as Hibs have teased out a four-point advantage over basement side Dunfermline in the battle to avoid relegation while they have a William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen to savour next month.
The 30-year-old said: “I wouldn’t say we are on a decent run yet, but we are doing okay. We’ve got some daylight between ourselves and Dunfermline and that trip to Hampden to look forward to. Confidence is fairly high without being over the top.”
Nevertheless, Murray admitted he’d far rather, as a veteran of such occasions, be offering advice on the pitch rather than the seat he’s likely to occupy in the School End at Tynecastle, his plan being to add his voice to the green and white army.
He said: “We’ll have four or five, maybe more, playing in this game for the first time and, in my opinion, the more experience you can get on the park in games like this the better. But I believe Sunday will be a totally different game to the last one.
“Our record against Hearts in the last couple of years has, in general, been quite poor but this is a chance to put it right.”
Apart from the obvious bragging rights, Murray believes the match represents different things for each clubs, for Hearts the chance to more or less “cement” their place in the top six while for Hibs it’s the opportunity to widen the gap over Dunfermline to seven points.
The utility man said: “I’m sure Dunfermline will be praying for a Hearts win. They’ll be looking to hang on in there as long as possible and if they can pick up points and we don’t then it will be very right, particularly as we will have to play each other again.
“But if we can win I’d imagine it would be quite demoralising for them, it would certainly make things more difficult from their perspective while we’d get a terrific lift.
“Hearts, though, will feel they can more or less secure their place in the top six. Winning at Ibrox was a massive result for them.”
Hibs, of course, have had to readjust their sights as the season has progressed, hopes of finishing in a place for Europe vanishing along with the prospect of regaining a spot in the top six as Murray readily accepts. He said: “Obviously we haven’t done ourselves justice over the course of the season but there’s definitely been progress. I thought the game against Celtic would be one in which we could judge how far we’d come but we were beaten quite heavily, Sunday is another chance to judge ourselves.”
Much has been made of the impact Craig Beattie has made in Hearts’ last two matches and while appreciative of the capabilities of the former Celtic striker, Murray insisted no-one should under-estimate the fire power at Fenlon’s disposal, Eoin Doyle and Roy O’Donovan having added to the competition for the front places alongside Garry O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths. He said: “I played with Craig for Scotland’s Under-21 side and against him when he was at West Brom and I was playing for Norwich. If I remember, he pulled his hamstring in that game, a problem he seemed to have when he was younger.
“I saw him in their cup match against St Mirren and, while it’s hard to gauge from television, he looked stronger, older and wiser. He was unfortunate to have a goal chalked off and, I understand, he did well at Ibrox. I thought he was excellent at the weekend but we’ve also got the players up-front who can get among the goals.
“With the arrival of Eoin and Roy we suddenly have four strikers looking for two places. Leigh and Roy seem to be the boys with the jerseys at the moment and both of them scored against Ayr but Garry is a proven goalscorer and someone who gets them in the big games.
“He’ll have been disappointed to find himself on the bench recently but it just shows the calibre of player the manager has brought in that our top goalscorer can’t get a start at the moment.”