It wasn’t intended as such but Fraser Murray might look back on his first Premiership start as something of a belated birthday present. The Hibs midfielder turned 20 last week and four days later was in the starting line-up at Rugby Park, a moment that at times he began to wonder if he would ever enjoy.
Although highly-rated by all at Easter Road – as witnessed by a new contract which ties him to the club until the summer of 2023 – the youngster’s progress has been hindered by injury problems, and he spent the first half of this season battling a persistent groin injury.
In all, Murray has made just 17 first-team appearances in the past three seasons, almost half of them in League and Challenge Cup matches while, other than a start against Raith Rovers after Hibs had clinched the Championship title and a return to the top flight, he has been restricted, in the main, to cameo outings. And, to add to his frustration, he has had to watch fellow youngsters Ryan Porteous and Oli Shaw establish themselves in the first team squad, his delight at seeing them do so tempered by an understandable touch of envy.
However, as he battled his way back to full fitness, Murray caught the eye of Paul Heckingbottom, as he had that of his predecessor Neil Lennon, the new head coach admitting that a cautious approach to ensure there was no risk of setback had prevented him from introducing the player earlier.
A late appearance as a substitute at Ibrox a week earlier had given Murray a glimmer of hope but, nonetheless, he was delighted to be told the night before the trip to Ayrshire that he would, at last, be on from the start.
He said: “It was obviously terrific to hear my name in the team to face Kilmarnock. I had a bit of time to think about it but, to be honest, I managed to get a good night’s sleep.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t one of our better performances and it was disappointing to lose the match although we got what we deserved. But I was happy to get my first league start and hopefully I can kick on from here.”
Facing a Kilmarnock side chasing down third place in the table and an automatic Europa League spot was always going to be a tough task for Hibs, Heckingbottom having revealed the “buzz” had gone from his players as they trained in preparation for the game, their own European hopes having evaporated in that 1-0 defeat by Rangers.
And his worst fears were confirmed in what he later described as “a rubbish” performance, one which had left him disappointed in his players for the first time.
Murray said: “Perhaps there was nothing to play for, but you want to win every game you play. It’s always tough at Kilmarnock, they have done well this season and them going for Europe was going to make it even more difficult.”
Coming up against the likes of Greg Taylor – who Killie boss Steve Clarke reckons is ready for a Scotland call-up – and Alan Power, Gary Dicker and Youssouf Mulumbu was a bit of a step up, and Murray said: “You don’t get a lot of time on the ball with these guys, it’s all a bit quicker than reserve team football. But other than the result, I thought I did okay. I’ve enjoyed the past few months with the new manager, I think I’ve taken on board what he wants so hopefully that’s going to get me some more chances.
“I’ve watched Ryan and Oli work their way into the squad. They’ve done well and deserved to do so but it’s been a bit hard at times watching them do that while I’ve been out and wondering ‘if only’.
“But they’ve shown that at Hibs good young players will always get their chance.
“I’ve been unlucky with injuries. I was suffering from overloading the groin, but it’s gone away now and I feel good. All the physios have helped me through it and I’m now feeling really strong and fit.
“Paul Hanlon had something similar so he’s also been someone who has helped nurse me through things.”
Tennis legend Sir Andy Murray – a mentor to both his namesake and Porteous through his 77 Sports Management agency – has also been a shoulder to lean on, particularly dealing with the mental side of coping with long-term injury.
The Hibs kid said: “Whenever I was struggling mentally or was a bit down, he would give me a few tips about how to keep going and stay focused. He just reminded me that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“It helps to know that he has been one of the greatest tennis players in the world and that you can overcome injuries and be one of the best.”
Having finally got his first league start, Murray acknowledged that next season will be a big one for him as he seeks to join Porteous and Shaw as a regular part of Heckingbottom’s plans, the head coach having indicated that he intends to run with a squad perhaps tight on numbers but high on quality as he begins a summer overhaul.
Players will depart and new faces arrive but Heckingbottom has also insisted there will be places for up-and-coming youngsters, music to Murray’s ears. He said: “It is good to know that the manger is trusting me but I also realise it is up to me to keep pushing on and earning my place in his thoughts every week.
“This week it’s a case of training well and catching his eye for the last game of the season against Aberdeen on Sunday.
“We weren’t good enough at Kilmarnock. There were more than 1,500 Hibs fans there and they deserved more so we want to go out on Sunday, put in a performance and go out on a high by sending the fans home happy and looking forward to next season.
“It will be a tough one again as Aberdeen are going for Europe but it’s up to us to raise our games and win for one last time this season.”