Juggling youth football and deputising for David Marshall - why Hibs' Murray Johnson has no fear ahead of Dortmund test
The last time Murray Johnson previewed a Hibs game in the UEFA Youth League, he was fresh back from a successful loan spell with Airdrieonians and speaking from the team hotel ahead of their first knockout round match against Molde.
Since then the 18-year-old has played in four European games, winning three, and tonight will start a fifth when Hibs host Borussia Dortmund in the play-off round. On top of that, he has just been promoted to second-choice goalkeeper behind David Marshall in Lee Johnson’s first team, and impressed for Scotland under-19s. It would be safe to describe this as the shot-stopper’s ‘breakout year’.
"It's going to be a huge occasion for us playing at Easter Road – we've had experience of that before, but it looks like it will be a really healthy crowd and we're playing a massive team in Europe,” he says. "With any opponent you try to identify strengths, weaknesses, things you can exploit, things they do well but the main thing is to focus on ourselves. It's 90 minutes at home so everything we can do is in our control. There's no getting away from the fact that they'll be a good team but equally we're also a good team and we're in fine form in Europe.”
While the competition is undoubtedly of great importance to the club, bringing with it the biggest games in which most of the Hibs under-19 squad will have played, Johnson has been juggling his role as No.1 for the youth side with his unexpected promotion to the senior squad. The planets aligned when Kevin Dąbrowski left on loan for Queen of the South, and Huddersfield recalled Ryan Schofield from his loan spell, clearing the way for him to step up as Marshall’s deputy.
"It was an opportunity that arose at the end of January,” Johnson explains. “I felt I was ready; I'd had a bit of experience at the start of the season on loan at Airdrie which I think put me in a really good place moving forward, and being number two to Marsh is a massive thing for me. I think it's just about continuing to move up the ladder. I was behind a couple of 'keepers, which is how it goes, but then they exited the club and I've loved taking the opportunity. Being involved the last couple of weeks has been amazing for me and my development and it's great to share it alongside a few of the other young lads as well.I think they've done exceptionally well too - it's really nice to be on that journey with a couple of boys who I'm very close with.
“The gaffer’s actions speak for themselves. He's put an incredible amount of faith in me and the young lads, putting us on the bench and you're only one red card, illness, injury away from being on the pitch,” Johnson adds. “That in itself shows the level of faith and trust he's. It's just up to us to repay that, go into training every day and give it your all and make sure you’re ready. He’s shown that if required he will turn around and pick you to get on the pitch."
Johnson won plaudits for his performances for the Diamonds, coming when he was still just 17. The stats are impressive: three clean sheets and unbeaten in five games, with just two goals conceded – including a draw with Dunfermline and a 4-0 victory over Falkirk.
"Being No.2 here is very different to playing for Airdrie; Hibs is a massive club and with that comes responsibility but I think I've matured very well,” he continues. “I've been a professional footballer for over two years now but it became very real, very quickly – I walk into the dressing room now and my top is sitting there next to David Marshall's. It all happens very fast, but that's what we train for and what we play for. Being the number three goalkeeper is a specialist position, because you're always ready. If someone gets injured you're the only one who can take up that role. I've always been ready for it and then it was about making sure I took the opportunity when it came, and being able to repay the coaching staff and manager's faith in me."
But the UEFA Youth League brings with it a dilemma, of sorts. Players involved in the competition can’t be loaned out to other clubs, which is why Johnson’s own loan spell with Airdrie was curtailed just before the first European fixture, but that then means very little gametime for the under-19s.
“It’s frustrating because you are trying to find that balance,” he admits. “You've got a massive game in Europe but you’re also trying to get valuable minutes in between the two games. From the Nantes game [in early November] until now has been a lengthy gap. The club has done extremely well to organise a games programme for us and huge credit to those behind the scenes who have sorted that out because it's given us young lads an opportunity to express ourselves, play, and get those minutes.”
One player Johnson is likely to face is Dutch talent Julian Rijkhoff. A product of the famed Ajax academy, he has struck 42 goals in 54 games for Dortmund’s under-19s, but it will take more than that to faze the Hibs ‘keeper.
"I've played against strikers who are worth millions of pounds but when I'm out on that pitch it’s one guy against another and there’s a ball in the middle,” Johnson shrugs. I’m always confident enough in my own ability that no matter who I come up against, I can do well. At the end of the day I'm a young player, he's a young player, and we're both trying to pave our way in the game. If I just focus on myself and marshalling my back unit we'll be okay.”