Aidan Smith's Saturday Interview: Ian Murray on his "extreme disappointment" over Hibs' managerial sackings and why Roy Keane would be "box-office" and "great fun"

The last time I sat down with Ian Murray, to talk Hibernian and the enticements but also the perils of football management, he had daddy day-care duties. His son Lewis came along, but didn’t contribute to the debate. Hardly surprising, really: the lad was not yet three and some sticker-book dinosaurs were in urgent need of affixing.

Murray won six Scotlabd caps.
Murray won six Scotlabd caps.

Lewis is at school today but his views on the current state of the Hibees – managerless, bottom-six, feeling sorry for themselves, talking to Roy Keane who’s viewed by some as a Jurassic choice and an extremely carnivorous one – could well be interesting. His old man hears them at the tea-table most days.

“He’s absolutely fanatical about Hibs,” smiles the former Easter Road captain. Murray, 41, had two spells in Leith, was part of the Alex McLeish side and then the Tony Mowbray team, played for Rangers and in England, represented Scotland and manned dugouts in Dumbarton, Paisley and Norway before his current posting at Airdrie where he’s never been happier. But Lewis, now 11, has got him beat on football factoids.

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“He’s stats-obsessed, self-taught and knows so much. And he loves writing letters to clubs all over the country: Arsenal. Manchester City, even Forest Green Rovers who he congratulated for being the first to go carbon-neutral. ‘And can I add,’ his letter went, ‘that I’ve been very impressed by your ‘Matt Attack’.’ I don’t know what that is. A formation? A strategy? … ” [The English League Two leaders’ prolific strike-force of Jamille Matt and Matty Stevens – just looked it up].

Ian Murray is loving life as manager of Airdrie who he leads into the Championship playoffs.

“I like that he’s polite but who even writes letters anymore?” The elder of Murray’s two boys is an unofficial super-agent for all football, recommending signings and pairing players with clubs, and his father revs up his smartphone to show me some recent correspondence: “Dear Hibs, can I suggest that next season you sign Matt Smith on loan from Arsenal? He’s at Doncaster Rovers right now and could do an excellent job for the team.” Lewis’ favourites receive the most letters, always being signed: “Born a Hibee, will die a Hibee.” But recent disruptions upset him. “Look, he’s written how he was ‘very disappointed’ in the sacking of Jack Ross and was hoping that Shaun Maloney would be given a decent amount of time … ”

We’ll return to Hibs’ traumas shortly, and hear Murray’s opinions on the dismissals and why he thinks Keane would be a great appointment, but Airdrie deserve attention, having pushed Cove Rangers hard for the League One title, with our man only losing out to his old Edinburgh derby foe Paul Hartley last weekend. The playoffs offer a second shot at promotion and the Diamonds begin at Montrose on Tuesday.

Over coffee in Edinburgh, Murray’s contentment with life at the Excelsior is obvious and he’ll mention it many times. “From the groundsman up to the owner [Paul Hetherington], Airdrie are a good club with good people and good ambition. I’m very happy there and am dying to take them up. We’re building something. That can be a tough thing to do [in North Lanarkshire with the lure of the Old Firm] but the supporters are coming back and we think we’ll have 3,500 at the playoffs.”

Complimenting the 11-year-old football obsessive Murray has at home are Martin Ferguson, 79, Airdrie’s chairman and Sir Alex’s brother, and vice-chair Bobby Watson, 75, the former Rangers and Motherwell midfielder. “They live next door to each other in Lenzie and make a great double-act. Bobby’s texts are hilarious. He’s a religious man so he’ll go: ‘Murray, Watson here, just off to kirk.’ There will be a wee vicar emoji and then: ‘Let’s get an effing win next Saturday!’ The pair of them are just like Jack and Victor in Still Game and lunch in their company is always a riot.”

First manager Alex McLeish took Murray from Hibs to Rangers

Then there are his players. “The average age is 22 and there’s a good balance to the team. Callum Fordyce, the captain, is a great leader. Dylan Easton, a Niddrie boy, has terrific ability on the ball although he tried a Panenka against Montrose a couple of weeks ago and missed so he’s off penalties now. Our goals come from Callum Gallagher, Callum Smith, Gabby McGill and Adam Frizzell. And Rhys McCabe, who was at Rangers, is one of the best passers I’ve seen. As I told Deek [Derek Riordan] on the golf course the other day, better than anyone he and I played alongside.”

Hibee interlude: who would win between the McLeish team of Franck Sauzee, Russell Latapy and David Zitelli and the Mowbray one of Deek, Garry O’Connor and Scott Brown? “Alex’s, I think. A Scott of 28, playing differently at that age, might be able to mark Russell out of the game. But while a Scott of 21 was part of a young side who, on their day, could run most teams ragged, experience would tell. And I’m not so sure Russell wouldn’t still wriggle into space that wasn’t there to score a great goal.”

Airdrie have been good for Murray personally after a difficult few years with an unhappy spell at St Mirren being followed by the death of his father, Paul. He arrived in Paisley in 2015 as one of the country’s brightest young bosses following good work at Dumbarton but only lasted 21 games before resigning.

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St Mirren were a step up, no doubt about that. He remarked about his Sons time that he could make “100 mistakes” but hardly any would prompt criticism. But the Buddies seemed to have an exaggerated sense of themselves. “The attitude was: ‘We’ve got a training centre, we were in the Premiership, we won the cup.’” The Hampden triumph was 2013 and they’d since been relegated. “I tried to explain: ‘That’s what you’ve done, it’s not who you are anymore.’”

In typically battling form for Hibs against St Mirren's Steven Thompson

Yes, Murray made mistakes. Yes, recruitment could have been better. But after one of his first duties had required him to find a club for want-away John McGinn – “Honestly, I went round the whole of the Championship in England and our Premiership but there were no takers until Hibs came in for him and the rest is history” – the budget made available to the boss only provided for kids and guys nearing the end of their careers.

A game at Raith Rovers sticks in the mind, jarringly so. “It was a freezing cold night, minus four, and at the end the whole place was booing. The St Mirren fans because we were on a bad run. The Raith fans because they’d lost a last-minute equaliser, even though it was a 30-yarder from Stevie Mallan so I don’t know what their team could have done to stop it. I shook hands with [Rovers manager] Ray McKinnon and said: ‘Would you listen to that.’ Then afterwards I made a remark about me possibly knowing more about football than our supporters but that didn’t go down very well.”

Murray took a year out of management, did some scouting - then he swapped minus four for 15 below and Asker in Norway’s second tier. But this was as No 2 to old Easter Road team-mate Kevin Nicol. And Norwegian football is a different kettle of herring altogether.

“In Scotland managers are under the microscope all the time. Every remark is dissected by the media and stuff gets blown out of all proportion. You can’t make a joke, you can hardly breathe, while players are petrified of cameraphones. In Norway there are no big dramas, real or manufactured. In Scotland for many fans football is their life. For Norwegians it’s just one aspect of it and the attitude is: ‘Never mind … next week.’”

The laidback vibe enabled Murray to reflect and re-charge. He observed and learned from Nicol, a coach he really rates – training methods and coping with defeat. And he liked the culture, which wasn’t such a world away when expats from Leith popped up in Oslo sports bars in Hibs casual gear or turned out to be language professors. “That was Carl, chairman of the Norwegian Hibs Supporters’ Club, which only has seven or eight members, but he was a season-ticket holder who flew back for games.”

Murray’s father passed away suddenly while his son was on the other side of the North Sea. “That was a huge moment and probably took me three to four years to get over. I would ask myself: ‘Do I want that pressure [of management] in my life again?’ I missed my family and was worried about my mum being on her own but I didn’t want to make a snap decision possibly based on emotion when the first Scottish job came up.” Airdrie, though, seemed right and has been proved to be. “Did I want that pressure? I think I’m better able to handle it now. St Mirren had knocked my confidence but not my desire. I was keen to try again.”

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He stresses, once more, how happy he is in North Lanarkshire. Yes, he’s ambitious and wants to push himself and coach at a higher level, but what if Airdrie could take him up the leagues? “Look at Ross County, look at Livingston – and now Arbroath are giving everyone hope.”

But what if his boyhood team came calling? Maybe that won’t happen this time but he’s been quoted as a potential candidate before and could be again. Murray examines the wreckage of the past few months at Easter Road – as both a member of this mad-fool profession and the fan who when he played in Edinburgh derbies would have “1973”, in reference to Hibs defeating Hearts 7-0 that year, cut into his hair to wind up Jambos. He reckons that despite Hibs achieving third last season, there was strong evidence of “decline”. It was a “godsend” there were no fans to see the Hampden flops of that campaign. One sighting of them a year ago left him unimpressed (“They were poor, they were slow.”). But, present for what proved to be Jack Ross’s final game, he reasoned: “I’d seen worse and I’d certainly heard more anger from the fans so I was really shocked when Jack was sacked. To win games by playing fantastic football is a difficult trick to pull off. No manager says: ‘I know, let’s be really rubbish today and try and gob a one-nil.’ That was Jack’s first bad run. He should have been allowed to lead the team into the [League Cup] final. I was extremely disappointed in the club. I thought: ‘It’s not what they do.’”

Well, given Maloney’s experience, it seems to be. “Great credentials and a lovely guy,” says Murray of Ross’ short-lived replacement, “but there’s a heck of a difference between taking a nice, controlled training session and the big, quick decisions needed in a derby: ‘We’ve just gone one-nil up at Tynecastle – what do I do now?’”

Murray watched the rematch in the Scottish Cup semi-final and thought Maloney was getting somewhere. “For the first time I could see his gameplan. The right players and it could have been really, really good.” Three days later, though, where Maloney was going was out of Easter Road.

“Shaun wasn’t given any sort of time and maybe the club should have backed him. What I can’t get my head around is that four months before he’d outlined his ideas and the hierarchy had gone: ‘Yeah, yeah, great.’ Then suddenly it’s: ‘Let’s not do that anymore.’ The people who run Hibs are now going to come under a whole lot of scrutiny. The names being mentioned for the job – Derek McInnes, Malky Mackay, Roy Keane – these guys are not stupid. They wouldn’t stand for any nonsense and that shouldn’t be underestimated by Hibs. [If they continue to hire and fire] they will have to take what they can get. Good managers will go: ‘I don’t need the hassle, they’re not going to dictate to me.’”

So what of the most eye-catching name? “As a Hibs supporter I’d love Roy Keane. When Neil Lennon was in charge it was one of my favourite times as a fan. Remember [then Hearts manager] Craig Levein’s remark about Edinburgh’s ‘natural order’ and Lenny responding: ‘Right, gloves off’? I think Roy would bring that kind of fire. The players would see who’s in the dugout and say to themselves: ‘I’ve got to be up for this.’ He would talk to the fans in language they understand, not managerial jargon.

“I don’t get that he’d be too abrasive, that you can’t shout at players anymore. Do we really think that [Jurgen] Klopp and [Pep] Guardiola don’t do that? Hibs need to shift season tickets and Roy would be box-office. He wouldn’t be there for ever; no managers are now. He’d come with baggage but, like when Hibs raced into a three-goal lead against Rangers, fell behind 5-3, came back to draw and Lenny finished off with his aeroplane impersonation, he could be great fun.”

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Murray, though, hasn’t answered my question: would he want the job, would he take it if offered, does he every time it comes up, which seems like once a month, allow himself a daydream about it? “Of course. Do I lose sleep thinking about it? Would I run down the street naked if I got it? No. But they’re my club and they would be incredibly hard to turn down. If I did then I reckon that later in life I’d look back and regret it.”

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