Liam Craig is no different to any other professional footballer in that he craves as much game time as his boots can take.
That’s the sole reason the Hibs club captain was left kicking thin air after being relegated to the substitutes’ bench, forced to go through the emotions as his team-mates grinded out a 3-2 victory over Cowdenbeath 12 days ago before occupying the same position last weekend as the Easter Road side suffered their fourth league defeat of the season away to Queen of the South.
However, the 27-year-old was restored to head coach Alan Stubbs’s starting XI as Hibs sealed a League Cup quarter-final home tie against high-flying Dundee United next month courtesy of a 2-0 triumph over Premiership strugglers Ross County at Dingwall on Tuesday night – Craig himself the architect for Dominique Malonga to head in the opener before the French-Congolese striker netted a second from a similar position just 14 minutes later.
But the former St Johnstone midfielder, who was told by previous boss Terry Butcher he was free to find another team in wake of the club’s relegation to the Championship, has never hidden his desire to continue his stay and grind out success with Hibs. And although some players have been known to slip into depths of despair at being overlooked for first-team duties, Craig, instead, embraced Stubbs’ decision which is down to the respect and admiration he and the rest of the squad have for their new mentor.
“The manager has been excellent,” Craig was keen to highlight. “Probably the biggest compliment I can give him is that I have been left out the last two weeks. But you want to come back and get in the team because he’s a manager you want to play for.
“The way he talks to you, the way he treats you, you want to play for him week in, week out. The players love going to training every day; there is no rush to get away where in previous training sessions there had been. It’s a really good place to go to work now and that all comes from him.
“He just said that was the way he felt he could win the game [dropping Craig] and I’m old enough now to know it’s going to take a squad to have any success. But it’s all about reactions and I think I showed on Tuesday that when I came back in that I want to do well here. It’s like anyone who is left out, you want to prove a point that you want to play every week.”
Craig acknowledged life in the Championship has been a far greater challenge than he had envisaged, the Hibees falling foul to so called inferior opposition on more than one occasion with victories for Queens, Falkirk and Alloa condemning Stubbs’s side to seventh spot in the table and ten points adrift of their table-topping city rivals.
Nonetheless, Craig believes this week’s triumph in the Highlands can finally inject some impetus and revive their push for promotion back to the top flight.
“I think the players have got to realise now, as a group, that in this division we are a big scalp for teams but we’ve got to get away from this and realise that we’re expected to win games week in, week out,” Craig said. “The manager is stressing that we want to play good football but at the end of the day it is about winning matches and on Tuesday we definitely found a way to win.
“A clean sheet was nice as well. We spoke about it after the Queen of the South game that we need to be harder to beat. I felt the way we defended in numbers, okay it wasn’t pretty at times, but it was effective and we got two great goals on the break.
“We’re hoping the result on Tuesday can help us turn a corner now and go on a run. We’ve got Rangers on Monday and then back-to-back home games [Raith Rovers and Dumbarton] and Hearts coming up next month, so we know if we can go on a run then it can get us right back up the table.”
Speculation is rife over the possibility of Leigh Griffiths returning to Easter Road from Celtic for a third-loan, the striker, who scored 39 goals for his boyhood heroes in his two previous stints, finding it increasingly difficult to navigate his way into manager Ronny Deila’s plans with the Premiership champions.
But Craig, who was playing his football with former club St Johnstone during Griffiths’s previous stay in the Capital, is more than content with the firepower the Easter Road side can call upon irrespective if the Scotland internationalist makes the switch east or not.
Craig said: “Dominique [Malonga] has come in and he’s been excellent and Jason Cummings is coming back into the team too.
“It’s not just all on the strikers though to get on the scoresheet. I look at myself and I’ve got to score more goals.
“Last year we relied on the defenders to score from a lot of set-pieces so we’re going to need everyone chipping in this year.
“Yes, it would be great if we could get a striker who can score 30 or 35 goals – then we would be at the top of the league.
“Leigh scores goals, but he’s Celtic’s player so there’s nothing we can do about that just now. We can only focus on what’s in the dressing-room and the players we’ve got at the club.”
Hibs are on their travels again on Monday night, Ibrox being the venue for a second time as Stubbs and his players eye revenge for the 2-1 defeat by Rangers in the first round of the Petrofac Training Cup just last month. “I think we showed in that game how much we’ve changed from last season.
“I thought we were the better team on the night but Rangers won the game and that’s the habit they’ve got.
“Although they might not play well they know how to win games and that’s what we’ve got to start doing. But we know we’ll have to be at our best if we want to taking anything from the game,” Craig added.
n Rangers v Hibs is exclusively live on BT Sport 1 from 7.30pm on Monday, September 29. BT Sport will bring fans nine live SPFL matches before the end of November including Hibs v Hearts (October 26) and Hearts v Rangers (November 22). Visit btsport.com for more information.