IT IS little surprise that Liam Craig is keen to throw the focus forward whenever he is asked to consider the pre-Terry Butcher recent past.
The midfielder will lead Hibernian out at Easter Road for the first time as captain when Partick Thistle visit on Saturday. The occasion will be more notable for the fact it will be manager Butcher’s first game in charge at home.
What is assured is that the post-match scenes will be more palatable than those experienced by Craig in previous manager Pat Fenlon’s final game.
Footage exists of Craig facing the caterwauling of an angry Hibs support as he made his way out of the front door following the League Cup quarter-final loss to bitterest rivals Hearts. One fan shouts about desire and another that even his granny could have scored an opportunity passed up by the player, who arrived from St Johnstone in the summer.
“That is something we wanted to forget about quickly,” the 26-year-old said. “The new manager has come in and everything is positive. It’s all about looking to the future. Saturday is a big chance for us to get back to winning ways at Easter Road and if we perform as we did in our last two games we will have a chance.”
At least there is no chance of Craig copping the flak meted out to him after the derby defeat. The 26-year-old had never suffered such a slaying before in his career, he admits. “Maybe not to that extent. But obviously there was a real frustration from the fans that night – and rightly so. The players were hurting as much as anyone because we did enough to win the game on the night but top goalkeeping from Jamie MacDonald and bad finishing from myself meant we didn’t get through. But that’s in the past now, we can’t affect that. We can affect what happens this weekend.”
Craig knows that, if all goes well and his team build on the Scottish Cup victory away to Ross County and the scoreless draw with St Mirren in Butcher’s first match, all will be sweetness and light with the club’s faithful. Their bitterness of the other week he had no intention of exacerbating, and no means of diluting, and so he let the abuse go unanswered. “There was nothing I could say that was going to make anyone feel better,” he said. “It was right after the game, emotions were high but there was nobody as disappointed as me and the rest of the players. We’ve got to accept that at times. There’s an expectation to do well here and we didn’t do well that night. We can’t affect that now though and there’s a real freshness about the place.”
Craig has a fresh role in taking over as skipper from James McPake and Saturday then provides a game to savour for him. “I’m looking forward to leading Hibs out at Easter Road,” he said. “I’m still undefeated as captain and long may that continue. It’s a great honour to captain Hibs and the two games so far have been away so we are looking forward to getting back to Easter Road. It’s about bringing the form we’ve shown in the last two games back to Easter Road. It’s a great squad to be involved in and being captain is special. It always helps when you are undefeated. Terry Butcher has captained Rangers and England and if he recognises captain qualities in me then that’s a massive confidence boost for me.”
Confidence has been as fragile as a butterfly’s wing at Easter Road in recent years. As a consequence so has been the support of those who populate the home stands. Fenlon, John Hughes and, to a lesser extent, John Collins will testify to that fact. And, while the Hibs punters are rushing to praise Butcher, it won’t take a lot going awry for them to start bumping their gums about him. Hibs’ stature brings with it a sense of responsibility for those in the footballing domain that will make the posting more onerous than those Butcher has recently held. He has admitted as much, stating the club’s size he only fully appreciated once he had bedded in.
“You know it’s a big club but you [only] realise how big it is when you get here. I don’t want to go back to that derby result but you see the reaction and it’s not something the manager will have been used to at Inverness. It’s similar at St Johnstone. There’s a pressure to get results, there are more fans to get upset but the boys in the squad who have been to cup finals say when you are winning games it’s a brilliant club to be at. We’ve seen that in the numbers that turned out for the games against Hearts and the European game. It’s a great club to be involved with. It’s not going to go well every week but the fans have been great and now it’s important we get good results at Easter Road.”
Butcher’s successor at Inverness Caledonian Thistle knows about that. Craig knows the Highland club’s new man John Hughes from his first club Falkirk. “A lot of people thought I had a fall out with Yogi when I left Falkirk but that’s not the case. I’m not silly enough to fall out with Yogi. He was great for my career. He gave me my first professional contract and, whenever I see him now, I got on great with him. It’s great news he’s back in the game.”