THE Scottish Cup has not been kind to Ian Murray. To be more precise, the Scottish Cup gave Ian Murray the come-on when he was a young man and spent the next decade taunting him, like an unattainable object of desire, cruel to the point of vindictive.
Murray is a Hibs man. As a young player at Easter Road he fell into traps that have been laid for men who harbour false hope for more than a century. By the age of 20 he had already experienced the pain of a Scottish Cup final defeat at Hampden, but, as every season is a fresh start, he presumed that those kinds of chances would keep coming. In hindsight, it was an easy mistake to make.
Even when he left Edinburgh, it was to move to Rangers, and in playing there for two seasons he might have expected some relief from the ritual of rejection in the old knockout competition. One campaign ended at the hands of Dunfermline and the other involved a 3-0 defeat at Ibrox by no other club than Hibs. Murray started both of those games but still did not suspect he was the carrier of a jinx.
Murray returned to Leith, older and wiser but still believing that he could free his fellow fans from all references to 1902. But while the mind was alert, the body now played tease, and he had to endure one of the club’s most painful days from Hampden’s main stand, as Pat Fenlon’s team went down 5-1 to Hearts – and he could do nothing about it.
Being a positive individual, the 32-year-old does not talk about that day in undertaker tones. In fact he refers to only the second Edinburgh derby in the national stadium as a “fantastic experience”. And for real proof that he has put his own Scottish Cup sob story behind him, check out how Dumbarton are doing this season on his watch. No manager gets a part-time outfit into the quarter-finals unless he goes into the tournament enthusiastically believing that anything is possible.
“I had played in a cup final when I was very young, and you think at that age that it’s going to happen again and again, and then every year that goes by and you are missing out, year after year,” Murray reflected this week. “I missed out on a few finals due to injury and suspension, so the cup hasn’t been too kind to me, but so far as a manager it’s been OK, so hopefully my luck will turn.”
If Dumbarton can escape with a draw tomorrow, when they play Aberdeen at Pittodrie, Murray might start to get a bit anxious about the replay, and not just because of what is at stake in the next round – his wife is expecting their second child this month. If Dumbarton can somehow overcome the form team in Scotland, Murray will know how Derek McInnes’s players will feel, having been on the wrong side of upsets himself.
“We were knocked out by Ayr United at Hibs under Colin Calderwood,” he recalls. “We drew 0-0 at Easter Road and didn’t play terribly well but managed to survive when our goalie pulled off a great save in the last minute.
“We thought, ‘OK, there’s a warning sign’, but then we went down to Somerset Park and got knocked out 1-0. It’s not impossible: you have to look at Aberdeen as a prime example, going to Parkhead and winning the game, and look at Albion Rovers beating Motherwell.
“I’ve said it since I can remember, and it’s no disrespect to teams that have won a cup and it’s no disrespect to us, but you don’t have to be a fantastic team to go and win a cup.”
So what has been Murray’s secret? Dumbarton looked destined for League 1 when he arrived at the foot of the great rock 16 months ago, but he not only kept them up, he made them a stable Championship outfit – they are currently fifth after going eight matches unbeaten prior to last weekend’s loss at Queen of the South.
Defender Andy Graham spoke earlier in the week about the little ways in which Murray bridges the gap between themselves and the full-timers – like pre-match meals and “packed lunches” with which to refuel on the way home from training. Given the nature of that training, this truly is a lower-league story worth telling, and one that Sir Alex Ferguson might identify with. “It’s well documented, and I hate to harp on about it, but the fact of the matter is we are training on a Thursday night on a quarter-pitch, inside, which means we do absolutely no shaping whatsoever, and the players go out on Saturday and they follow the instructions as best they can,” Murray says. “At the moment, how well they have done in overcoming that is remarkable really.”
Whatever happens tomorrow in the north-east, Dumbarton’s best Scottish Cup run in 36 years has been a revelation and can be added as a bold-type entry on the Murray CV. Wherever this young leader of men finds himself working next, he will be glad that he took a chance on a provincial club that has gone even longer than Hibs since its name was last imprinted on the old trophy.
“We understand this is a real-ly tough draw for us, playing against the second-best team in the country . . . but we do believe that we have a chance. And it’s not as small a chance as some people are making out.”