As recently as a month ago, many Hibs fans were underwhelmed by the arrival of Simon Murray. In just five competitive games, however, the red-headed striker has gone a long way to winning over the sceptics with eight goals and a string of effective, high-energy displays.
His performance against Partick Thistle on Saturday, which included a goal from the penalty spot, kept his early momentum going. Even manager Neil Lennon, who already rated him highly, admits Murray has exceeded expectations with his scintillating start. “He scores the kinds of goals I like – tap-ins,” said Lennon. “He’s able to get between the posts and he’s got a couple of headers already, a couple of goals from close range and he scored a penalty at the weekend. I’ve had all kinds of different striker goals from him already.
“I knew all about his work-rate and his physical attributes but what I saw on Saturday that pleased me was his link-up play, which was superb. Even his first touch, which has been a little bit inconsistent, was very, very good. He’s in a good place at the minute and, yes, he has exceeded my expectations at the minute, so far. But we’re only one game into the [league] season – give him five!”
Lennon believes there is still plenty of scope for Murray to improve but insists he shouldn’t be compared with Jason Cummings, who was sold to Nottingham Forest just weeks after his arrival in June.
“What I liked about Simon was he got 18 goals last season but he didn’t always start,” said the manager. “I watched him in the play-off games and in the Falkirk game Falkirk were the better team over the two legs but he grabbed Dundee United by the scruff of the neck and really took the game to Falkirk.
“That showed me a lot of desire and he’s brought that with him. What we want to do is polish off the rough edges, if there are any. But he’s doing it all by himself at the minute. We haven’t really had to do a lot of work with him and his attitude has been fantastic.
“He’s not a like-for-like replacement for Jason. Players like Jason are very difficult to replace, but Simon’s got different qualities that he’s brought to the team. I think the fans appreciate his work rate and the stuff he does off the ball for the team. He also stepped up to take the penalty on Saturday, which shows he’s full of confidence.”
Murray could be partnered in attack by Anthony Stokes in tonight’s Betfred Cup match against Ayr United as Lennon contemplates giving the Irishman his first start since returning to Hibs. Stokes’ form has been patchy for several years, but Lennon feels he is as well-equipped as anyone to ensure the 29-year-old “maverick” is in the right frame of mind to produce his best this season.
“Keep Stokesy’s head in the right place? It’s a very difficult thing to do!” Lennon joked. “There is a familiarity there with myself and the club, too. He also knows there is a line that he can’t cross with me. He managed that very well for four years [at Celtic] – and there’s no reason why he can’t do the same again. I think that, at 29, we’re getting him at a very good age. He wants to have a good season, wants to catch the eye of the national manager again, but he can only do that by playing consistently and scoring goals.
“There is no doubting his ability, and you don’t lose the ability. Sometimes you lose your way, whether it be through injury or things away from football. But, if you can get him right and focused, the talent is still there. He’s fit, he’s in great condition, he just needs match sharpness now.
“I don’t think he takes a lot of managing. We do have these figures in the game – the mavericks, the rascals. And sometimes the stories around them get blown out of all proportion. But I’ve known him for a long time and I know the type of kid he is – he’s all right. And, yeah, if he needs a stick across the backside, then he’ll get one.”
Asked if he sees Stokes and Murray as a compatible partnership, Lennon said: “Absolutely. Predominantly, I will go with two strikers. I have done that throughout my managerial career, because they make the difference at the top end of the pitch.
“I think I’ve got two really good ones in that pair, plus another who is different in Deivydas [Matulevicius]. I’ve got Martin Boyle I can throw up there, as well. We like to keep defenders occupied – that’s key at this level.”
Another player who could be keeping Ayr United’s players occupied tonight is Fraser Murray, who has caught the eye in his eight appearances since making a goal-scoring debut in an Irn-Bru Cup match away to Turriff United 11 months ago. The 18-year-old attacking midfielder is in contention to start tonight, and Lennon has no immediate plans to send him out on loan. “He’s a good player, a very good player, but he’s still developing, physically as well.
“I like him and I’ve liked him for a long time, and he seems to thrive in the environment of the first-team squad. We want to drip feed him in, but he’s got really good attributes, he’s got an eye for a goal. Just physically he needs a bit of work at this stage, but we’ve got high hopes for him.
“He’s definitely staying. Training with these guys every day, good, experienced international players who have won titles, I would like to think he’ll thrive on it and it will bring him on. We can see signs of that, but I don’t want to just throw him in there for period of games. He needs to find his feet still, but he’s a very good player.”