Simon Murray admits moving to South Africa was a risk, but the former Hibs striker believes it was an opportunity too good to turn down.
Bidvest Wits pulled off what appeared to be a shock move to tempt Murray to Johannesburg, but today he revealed they’d been on his trail for more than a year.
As his contract with Dundee United came to an end last summer, Murray chose Easter Road over South Africa, but with Flo Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren again set to form Neil Lennon’s strikeforce following the free-scoring partnership they formed in the second half of last season as he departed on loan to Dundee, he once more found his career at a crossroads.
And when Bidwest had a £150,000 bid accepted by the Edinburgh club, Murray found such a challenge too good to resist for a second time.
Speaking for the first time since making the switch to the “Clever Boys”, Murray told the Evening News: “I’d always fancied playing abroad at some stage but while I probably thought that might be somewhere in Europe, this came out of the blue.
“I spoke to Neil Lennon and he said I could stay and fight for my place but I spoke to the owners of Bidvest. They told me all about the club and what they wanted to do and that excited me.
“I also had interest from Australia and, as we know, from other clubs in Scotland, but being wanted is a big thing in football and, yes, it was a risk but everyone takes different roads in life and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted to have turned it down and then be wondering at the end of my career ‘what if?’
“Bidvest knew me, and when I was at United I had the opportunity to come to South Africa, but I chose Hibs which was also a great opportunity.”
In doing so the 26-year-old brought an end to the most turbulent six months of his football career which saw a bid from Turkey knocked back by Hibs only for him to be shipped out on loan to Dundee before returning only to find himself once again on the fringes of Lennon’s thinking.
He said: “It has been a bit of an upheaval when you look at it, but I firmly believes things happen for a reason.”
Murray is still settling into life in South Africa’s biggest city but, he insisted, he is not only enjoying the football – finding himself at a club which is currently at the top of a league they won for the first time in their history only two years ago – but a whole new way of life.
He said: “There’s only one team that was going to win the Premiership in Scotland for the past number of years and, if we are being realistic, in the near future it’s likely to be between only two clubs.
“Here every team has a chance of winning every game and I am with a club hoping to win the league. We’ve made a good start, joint top and I managed to get my first goal the other week which is always good for a striker joining a new club.”
Murray, however, has been forced to curb his natural all-action game thanks to the altitude of Johannesburg, some 1700 metres above sea level.
He said: “I haven’t actually started a game yet. I’m fit but the altitude makes it hard to breathe and so I’m being given time to acclimatise.
“I’m no expert on South African football but it’s more of a passing game here, not as physical in Scotland. If you tried to go all guns blazing here in Johannesburg you wouldn’t last 25 minutes because of the altitude.”
Murray has signed a four-year contract with Bidvest, known as the “Clever Boys” because of their close association with the University of Witwatersand in the Johannesburg suburb of Braamfontein.
And as someone who confesses to having a wanderlust, having previous visited the likes of Australia, the United States, Canada and a host of European countries, he’s determined to make the most of the travelling that will be entailed with the likes of Cape Town almost 800 miles away.
He said: “There’s quite a bit of travelling to be done, flying to Durban is probably like going to London but it is all part of the experience and when I get the chance I like to take a look around the various places we’ve been.
“Obviously, if I was playing in somewhere like Belgium or Holland it would be pretty easy to come home when international breaks give you that free weekend but that’s not really feasible when you are a 12 hour flight away.
“Instead, I get out and about, getting to know the city I am living in, there’s a lot of things to do. And when I get the chance I’ll probably get myself booked on a safari which, again, will be a new experience.
“I know people back home hear about things in South Africa that alarm them but like anywhere else you just have to be aware and as far as I am concerned I only have good things to say about the people and the country. It’s all been good and I’ve enjoyed it so far. It’s been amazing.
“As far as coming home is concerned, we have a break after our game on December 21 so I’ll be able to get back to catch up with family and friends for a week or so then.”
Having been brought up in Scottish football where club allegiances are polarised, Murray revealed he’s enjoying matches in South Africa, almost carnival-like occasions full of colour and music as clubs with all sorts of exotic names do battle.
He said: “There are some wonderful names, Amazulu, who I scored my goal against, Golden Arrows, Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaiser Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and so on.
“The Sundowns are owned by a very rich man so they try to get the best players but the Chiefs and the Pirates are the two biggest supported teams in the country and when they play they get a crowd of 80,000, they have fans all over South Africa, a bit like Celtic and Rangers back home.
“Like ourselves, the Chiefs and Pirates are in Johannesburg and fans throughout the country can’t afford to come here to see them play.
“So what you find is when you go to any ground there are lots of supporters wearing their tops, and those of other clubs and waving flags.
“No matter the size of stadium there’s a great atmosphere, music, singing, dancing and people blowing those vuvuzelas.”
As far away as he might be, Murray, who was preparing for the Wits home match with Polokwane City tonight when he hopes to make his first start for his new club, admitted that tomorrow he’ll be anxiously awaiting news of Hibs’ match with Dundee on Tayside, confessing that his allegiances will be tested.
The former Arbroath playersaid: “I know Dundee have not had a great start to the season and Hibs have done quite well. Dundee need to pick up points and sooner rather than later and while they are probably more important to Neil McCann at the moment, Hibs will also see a win as being vital.
“The longer Dundee sit with zero points the harder it will be for them, but to ask me to pick between the two clubs is a hard one because I enjoyed my time with both.”