Spartans striker Keith Murray is enjoying a new lease of life at the Ainslie Park outfit.
Having been farmed out on a month’s loan to divisional rivals Preston Athletic in November, the 24-year-old has made the club’s No.1 striker position his own since rejoining Dougie Samuel’s first-team squad last month – six goals in his last five outings in a Spartans shirt an impressive return by anyone’s standards.
Murray’s patience this season, though, has been put to the test. Having reluctantly reached a decision to have an operation on a hernia problem over the summer, the former Leith Athletic frontman found himself weeks behind with his match fitness ahead of the Lowland League’s curtain-raiser with Stirling University at the end of July.
The subsequent arrivals of strikers Jack Hay from Gala Fairydean Rovers and Craig Johnston on loan from SPFL League Two strugglers Cowdenbeath did nothing to help Murray’s cause, the player admitting he found it difficult to get some much-needed game time under his belt.
However, his luck was about to change for the better as Johnston was recalled from his loan spell by the Blue Brazil and, having fared well at Craig Nisbet’s Preston where he scored three goals in as many appearances, Murray now finds himself one of the first names on Samuel’s teamsheet.
“I never really had a proper pre-season so I was kind of lacking the match fitness and sharpness you need to compete at this level,” Murray recalled ahead of this weekend’s visit of city rivals Civil Service Strollers. “It was frustrating. I’d been playing with a hernia for a few years but I’d put any operation off because I didn’t want to stop playing football. I knew the downtime of having it done would keep me out for a while.
“I scored 15 last season in my first year with Spartans and that was without getting the starts I wanted. But over the summer my dad finally persuaded me to go in and get myself sorted out and have the operation.
“But when I came back into things I wasn’t really at the races so Dougie (Samuel) thought it would be best to put me out on loan initially until Christmas. However, with Craig going back to Cowdenbeath and me doing well at Preston, that was cut short. That was all I really needed was to get some minutes out on the pitch. The gaffer has given me that chance to come back and I’ve taken it. It’s nice to be the first-choice striker at the moment so I’ve got a bit of confidence about myself again.”
Ironically Murray was the matchwinner against Preston last weekend when his brace at the Pennypit kept the Panners rooted to the bottom of the league on 13 points alongside Selkirk.
“I enjoyed it down at Preston event though I was only there a short time,” Murray said.
“They’ve got a good group of lads and I was made to feel welcome but I’m there to score goals and that’s what I did last weekend coming up against them.
“Being at Spartans there is always going to be competition but as long as I keep training well and scoring goals then I can’t see why the gaffer would leave me out.”
Meanwhile, Civil boss Alex Cunningham has urged his players to put the disappointment aside of last Saturday’s defeat by Whitehill Welfare.
“We’ll go again,” he said. “We’ve got a tough few weeks with Spartans tomorrow and then Dalbeattie at the end of the month. But I don’t think we’ve got any reason to fear anyone really. We’ve been playing well and have shown that we are a decent side so we just need to keep that going.”
Elsewhere, Edinburgh University will look to bounce back from their midweek loss to Stirling University when they host BSC Glasgow at East Peffermill.
Whitehill manager David Bingham faces the team he managed for two-and-a-half seasons when former club Preston make the trip to Rosewell.