In a month that began with defeat to Rangers and ends with a cup and league double-header against Celtic, Ian Murray recognises the increased pressure on Hibs to win their two non-Old Firm SPL fixtures, at home to Motherwell tomorrow and at St Mirren next weekend.
The expansive, attractive playing style adopted by both the second-placed Steelmen and the Buddies has been among the highlights of the SPL exchanges so far this season, but Hibs skipper Murray insists that calibre of opposition is welcomed – and far from feared – by his side.
“I like when teams come and play football,” said Murray, 30. “I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go about it – I just like playing against them. The more teams who come and do that against us, I think we’ve got the players to pick teams off. They will be good enough to cut free at times – that’s going to happen. We’re not going to dominate a game for 90 minutes – that’s impossible. The important thing is to get off to a good start against these teams and stamp your authority.
“We’ve got Motherwell and St Mirren now and we need to pick up points. We need to win tomorrow, get at least a point away from home [next weekend], and then we’ve got the cup [Celtic in the quarter-final of the League Cup]. So, in a month’s time, we could be sitting rosy in a semi-final of a national cup, fourth or fifth in the table. Equally, we could be sitting bottom of the table with no semi-final.
“Being greedy, we want to be up there challenging for third place and in a semi-final, but the only way we can do that is by the old cliché of ‘one game at a time’, but if you start looking three or four weeks down the line, obviously your focus is gone off the game on Saturday.”
Murray’s sights are currently set on halting the prolific Motherwell striker Michael Higdon and his youthful accomplices Jamie Murphy and Chris Humphrey tomorrow afternoon, however, there was a time during the 30-year-old’s first spell at Easter Road when he would have had one eye on making an impact at the opposite end of the pitch.
A little less than seven years ago, in November 2004, Motherwell suffered a 1-0 loss at Easter Road and from that day have remained the last team against whom Murray scored. The player tallied a further 24 games in his first stint at Hibs and, after coming full circle via moves to Rangers and Norwich, clocked up a further 133 displays in green and white since January 2008, meaning he has failed to add to his 17 goals for the club since making his 132nd of 289 appearances. He can vividly recall that last strike – which beat Gordon Marshall and was the only goal of the game that day – but harbours no frustration of the dry, goalless run that has followed.
“Not really, not now,” said Murray. “Maybe if I was a striker or a winger. I predominantly play at the back, and you don’t really expect to score. If you do, it’s great. If you’re playing midfield or wings, you tend to think, ‘How can I get a chance to set up someone here?’ more than putting the ball in the net.
“But it’s not really something I’ve been bothered with in my whole career. Even when I was young, I wasn’t bothered about scoring. I obviously wanted to score my first goal for Hibs, but after that it was never my aim to be a goal-scorer. It’s never bothered me.
“I don’t know how I managed to get so many goals in that first spell! I was playing midfield one year and I think I got 12. It was just one of these things. Some of them were great goals and some of them were rubbish. Once you find your eye for goal again, you tend to find they’ll come. I’ll probably score one, then score another one, then that’ll be it.
“You go through wee phases. I remember Kevin McBride scored 12 for Motherwell one season, went to Falkirk, came here, and never scored.
“I’d like to score more. I’ve had chances, been a wee bit unlucky, hit the post a couple of times. But, I’m confident I’ll score again . . . before I hang up my boots!”
With that stage of his life in mind, Murray completed training for his UEFA B coaching licence at Stirling last week, taking advantage of his free time during the international break to enhance his prospects of remaining at a high level in the game beyond his playing days.
His prospects on the field in recent weeks were hampered by a back injury - “just a bit of tightness, nothing major” – for which he has received physiotherapy in the past couple of days. The player explained that the niggle is a result of participating in an intensive run of games prior to the fortnight-long league lay-off coupled with the impact of firm playing surfaces in the SPL.
With one defeat in their last six and having already beaten Motherwell, in a League Cup tie last month, Hibs’ confident mood will be tempered by an awareness that a slip tomorrow may see them fall back to the foot of the league just as easily as a win could see them climb to sixth.
“It’s the tightest it’s been for years, probably, so it’s going to be a long season for us, but there’s no reason why we can’t set our sights a little higher from where we were a few weeks ago,” said Murray.
“We’ve had so many close games this year, and some have gone for us, and some have gone against us. We know on the day anyone can beat anyone and Motherwell will come here full of confidence; they went up to Tannadice and won 3-1 in their last game. That’s how crazy the league still is, that’s how competitive it is. Motherwell are sitting in front of Celtic in the league at the moment. To be sitting above one of the Old Firm at this stage of the season is a fantastic achievement.
“They’ve got quite a lot of pace in their team, which I think helps them, and they’ve got Higdon as well as a target man, who has done quite well. They have a lot of young players who have played a couple of seasons in the SPL, so they have got that advantage as well – they know the league inside out – Ross Forbes, Jamie Murphy, Tim Clancy, Humphrey, Hateley. The more experienced ones like Higdon, Lasley. They have brought in players who have played in the league before, so they are tried and tested. They’ve had a fantastic start to the season and they’ll be delighted. But, we beat them in the cup and it was a very entertaining game, so we’re just as good as them. They’ll know that as well – they’re not stupid – and St Johnstone beat them 3-0, so things can happen. We’ll have a game plan against them, so hopefully we can use that.”