Liam Craig is set to complete a rare double this week when he turns out for Hibs against Malmo FF in the Europa League in Sweden just a year after he played for St Johnstone in their matches against Turkish side Eskisehirspor in the same competition.
Not many Scots play for different Scottish teams in Europe in successive seasons, and 26-year-old Craig is relishing the task of trying to put the Swedish side out at this, the second-qualifying-round stage.
The Borders-born midfielder will not entertain any negative thoughts about the early start to the season affecting Hibs’ chances, even though the Swedes are midway through their league programme – they currently lie second, equal on points with leaders Gothenburg.
“There is a real buzz about the place and we are really looking forward to the game on Thursday,” said Craig. “We did a lot of good work in Spain [and Portugal in pre-season training camps where they played friendlies].
“Last year with St Johnstone we were one of the first teams to play a competitive match, yet we had one of the strongest finishes of any SPL side. I think it is a good thing, pre-season is shorter and that’s what you want – to play competitive games.
“We have played five friendlies and we will be ready. After the second leg the season will be upon us, and I think having these competitive matches will give us an edge in the league at the start of the season.”
Malmo eventually put out Irish club Drogheda, beating them 2-0 in Sweden, but were held to a goalless draw in the first leg. Craig says that is a good sign for Hibs. He said: “A lot of people were expecting Malmo to progress comfortably, but the first leg just went to show how competitive Europe is, regardless of who you get.”
But surely the Scottish teams in Europe have a mountain to climb? Perhaps not, according to Craig. “When you look at last year, the teams that put out Scottish teams were really good sides,” he said. “The team from Turkey had a budget of God-knows-how-much more than St Johnstone and I think sometimes people are too hard on the Scottish teams. There is a lot of negativity surrounding Scottish teams, but we need to focus on the positives – which is we have four teams embarking on another European campaign that have high hopes.”
It is a tough ask for Hibs, however: “It wasn’t that long ago that Malmo beat Rangers so that shows what a good side they are, but we will be going into that game aiming to progress, we are certainly not in there for one round, or treating it like another couple of pre-season games before the season starts. We want to get through as many rounds as possible, even though we know it is good opposition we are playing against, and all the Scottish teams will be in the same situation.
“No one gave Scotland much of a chance against Croatia last month, yet they go and get an unbelievable win. You take heart from results like that and, at the same time, we know we are building a squad which can compete at that level.
“You look at the experience that is there and, pleasingly for the senior lads, we see the younger players coming through. The young boys in this squad are very, very good. And the mix is right, the blend is there. There is no reason we can’t compete.”
Craig said that one of the attractions of joining Hibs was the chance to play in Edinburgh derbies, and he has some sympathy for his fellow professionals across the city at Hearts as they face an uncertain time.
He said: “It is hard, what they are going through. You wouldn’t wish it on any player, but my main focus just now is doing the best I can for Hibs.”
Craig can also laugh off the infamous incident when, as a Falkirk player in 2006, he tussled with a Hibs fan and was sent off.
“That was blown well out of proportion,” said Craig. “I was just a kid at the time, but it was nothing really. And now I am looking forward to playing in front of those fans and doing as well as I can for the club.”