Craig: Resurgent Hibs and Dons set for Friday night cracker

Liam Craig has been in fine goalscoring form for Hibs ' grabbing three in his last two games. Pic: SNS
Liam Craig has been in fine goalscoring form for Hibs ' grabbing three in his last two games. Pic: SNS
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Hibs and Aberdeen have long been regarded as the sleeping giants of Scottish football, the two clubs having, to most eyes, hugely under-achieved in recent seasons as they’ve found themselves in what has become depressingly familiar territory, scrapping it out among the also-rans in the bottom half of the table.

But now both appear to be stirring, the Dons having enjoyed an impressive first half of the season under new boss Derek McInnes as they have soared to second place behind champions Celtic while Hibs have similarly shown signs of a renaissance with the arrival of their new management team of Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas.

McInnes, of course, has stolen a march having been in charge at Pittodrie since the end of last season, those precious few months allowing him to reshape his squad over the course of the summer as he brought in experienced pros such as Barry Robson and Willo Flood to nurse along the club’s promising array of young talent.

To that extent, Butcher is playing a game of catch-up, having only been at Easter Road for a few weeks although even in that short period a remarkable transformation has taken place, Hibs now boasting a run of just one defeat in nine games as they’ve climbed upwards, inching their way into the top six.

It all adds intrigue to tonight’s clash between the sides in the Granite City, an opportunity for Aberdeen to strengthen their claim to being “best of the rest” but also a chance for a resurgent Hibs to convince not only their own fans but supporters of other clubs that this isn’t yet another false dawn.

To that end, Hibs skipper Liam Craig is probably best placed to assess just what Butcher and McInnes have brought to their respective clubs, the midfielder having become the Aberdeen manager’s first signing when he was in charge of St Johnstone, a move which he credits as having breathed new life into his career.

He said: “I have every respect for Derek and Tony Docherty {McInnes’ assistant]. They took me at a stage of my career when it was pretty flat, to be honest. I hadn’t been playing a lot of games that season for Falkirk so I signed for a month and ended up staying for another five-and-a-half years.

“I remember when I signed Derek told me I’d better do welL or he’d be under pressure but I had two or three great years working with Derek and Tony. I have great respect for them and I still talk to the two of them. Derek was a very young manager when he took over from Owen Coyle, who did well at Saints in terms of taking them to cup semi-finals, but I think Derek took the club a bit further on, making them a solid SPL side. Both St Johnstone and myself have a lot to be thankful for to the two of them.”

Although McInnes endured an unhappy time south of the border at Bristol City, Craig insisted the turnaround he’s overseen in Aberdeen’s fortunes has come as no surprise to him but, he claimed, Butcher and Malpas are engineering exactly the same upturn in the Capital.

He said: “I know how Derek works and what he likes to get across to his players. You can see how they have started the season that the players are responding to it and, when you see the support Aberdeen are taking to away games, that the fans are definitely responding to what’s happening.

“It’s absolutey the same thing here. First and foremost, the gaffer and Maurice are winners. Just look at their backgrounds and you know exactly what they want from their players. When you step onto the pitch you know what your job is, what they expect of you and you don’t want to let him down because they have put a lot of trust in you.

“They’ve come in here and in a short space of time everything is really positive. Everyone, the players and the fans, have responded to what they are trying to do. They are buying in to it. The good thing for both the gaffer and Derek when I worked under him is that they have a good group of honest players and I’m sure if you ask them they’ll say that helps.”

While some may see tonight’s match as a chance for Hibs to measure themselves against Aberdeen, Craig believes the signs of progress at Easter Road are already all too evident. He said: “I think those questions have already been asked of us. We went to Ross County in the Scottish Cup and people were asking if we could go there and win because we hadn’t done it before. Now we have beaten them in the Cup and the league.

“Then, because we had lost the first two derbies of the season, people were asking if we were mentally tough enough going into the last one which, of course, we won. The manager has spoken of ‘small steps’ and it’s just about doing that game by game.

“We were disappointed to lose those two late goals at Dundee United but, when you look at the bigger picture, it’s five games unbeaten. We took ten points out of twelve over Christmas and New Year when matches were coming thick and fast. Everyone has been talking about how good Dundee United are and what a good season they’ve been having and yet we went up there and dominated for 80 minutes. You are going to get hurdles every week in football and, if we take the same work ethic as we have shown in recent weeks with attack-minded players, moving and passing the ball, pressing the Aberdeen players, then I am sure we can get the result tonight.

“Aberdeen, of course, will think exactly the same and that, I think, will make it a good game for the neutral.”