Liam Craig could be forgiven for declining a request to reflect on a stint at Hibs which was largely defined by the fact he was captain when they suffered the ignominy of relegation in 2014.
Despite enduring a Europa League thrashing by Malmo, play-off defeats against Hamilton Accies and Rangers, and a batch of derby losses during a two-season spell at Easter Road in which he worked under three managers, however, the St Johnstone midfielder doesn’t view his time in Edinburgh in the gloomy light many may imagine. As he prepares to face Hibs this Saturday for the second time since leaving to rejoin Saints two years ago, it is clear the 30-year-old retains a genuine feeling of warmth towards his former club.
“My time at Hibs was mixed,” Craig told the Evening News. “It sounds stupid when we got relegated but I really enjoyed my two seasons there. Although it was a difficult time when I was there, I really enjoyed playing with the club. I enjoyed the first six months (under Pat Fenlon) and scored a few goals, but the second half of the season, when we got relegated, was tough.
“But I came through it and I really enjoyed working under Alan Stubbs, John Doolan and Taff (Andy Holden) in the second season. I enjoyed working with the group of players for the two seasons I was there. A lot of the boys who got relegated got a lot of negative press but there were a lot of good people at Hibs at that time. There was obviously a lot of disappointment, but I also had a few good times.”
Being skipper when Hibs plummeted into the Championship under Terry Butcher was the obvious nadir. “You’ve got to take responsibility as a player anyway but when you’re captain, there is even more responsibility,” said Craig. “But it was still one of the highlights of my career to captain a club like Hibs. It was obviously disappointing the way the first season ended but I look back on my time there and feel fortunate that I got to play for a great club like Hibs.”
While the majority of players involved in the club’s relegation left immediately, Craig remained to help play a part as Hibs began rebuilding in the Championship under Alan Stubbs. Although it ultimately ended in the Easter Road side missing out on promotion after losing to Rangers in the play-off semi-final, the midfielder is pleased that he was able to enjoy a more harmonious and progressive second campaign at Hibs after the turbulent nature of his first term.
“I think after the first meeting we had with Alan Stubbs, all the boys knew Hibs were on their way back to the Premiership,” said Craig. “The only disappointment is that it took a bit longer than everybody had expected and wanted. As much as I was disappointed we didn’t get promoted straight away, I loved that season under Alan. A lot of that group of players are still there now.
“Alan was a manager all the players loved working for and you could see the response the players gave him in terms of going close in the first season when we finished second and then got beat by Rangers in the play-offs, and then in the next season, when they responded to losing the play-offs to Falkirk and came back and won the Scottish Cup the following week, which was massive for everyone at the club. I was delighted for Dave Gray, who’s one of my best pals, and also for guys like Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson who, like myself, had some tough times at the club but are really good boys.
“Since then Neil Lennon’s come in and built on what Alan did and taken them into the Premiership. The crowds they’re getting shows that the fans are responding to the way they’re playing and the way the club’s being run. They’ve got a great squad. They’re back where they belong and they’re going from strength to strength. I’m delighted for them because there are a lot of people there who I’m still good friends with and will be for a long time. I usually speak to Dave two or three times a week but I’ve not spoken to him this week yet and that’ll probably remain the case until after the game on Saturday.”
Craig is braced for a tough test at McDiarmid Park on Saturday as Saints bid to maintain their unbeaten start in the Premiership. “Hibs will be pleased with the start they’ve made,” said Craig. “They’ll be disappointed with the Hamilton result but in their last game against Dundee, 1-1 looked a bit harsh on them because they had enough chances to win the game.
“They’ve got plenty match-winners. Simon Murray’s hit the ground running, Anthony Stokes was a match-winner in this league as a teenager when I played with him at Falkirk ten years ago and obviously he’s done a lot since then. John McGinn’s a full internationalist and even their full-backs, Steven Whittaker, Lewis Stevenson and Dave Gray are a threat going forward. They’ve got quality all over the pitch but we’re looking forward to it and are hoping to build on a really good start for us.”
Things have gone swimmingly for Craig since he returned to Saints upon leaving Hibs just over two years ago. Having feared he may have had to drop down the ranks, he was thrilled to land a move to a side who have become mainstays of the Scottish Premiership’s top six in recent times. “I’m delighted with how it’s worked out for me in the last couple of years in terms of coming here,” he said. “Leaving Hibs was tough, in terms of getting back into another club. I was maybe going to go part-time but the manager put his trust in me to come back here and go and express myself again. I’ve played the majority of games over the last two seasons in a team that’s finished fourth so the last two seasons couldn’t have gone much better for me. After the start to the season we’ve had, I’m just looking to get back into the starting XI on a more regular basis and build on the success I’ve had in the last two years.”
The fact Liam Craig and Hibs will contest a top-six Premiership match this Saturday serves as ample evidence that both player and club have responded emphatically to that tumultuous day in May 2014.