As well as a reluctant caretaker manager, it seems Hibernian have an equally reluctant caretaker assistant in charge for arguably their most important match of the season this afternoon.
It’s a far from ideal situation, particularly during what has been a period of stuttering form. Defeat by Raith Rovers in today’s fifth-round tie at Easter Road would effectively end Hibs’ season, leaving Neil Lennon’s successor – an announcement is expected early next week – with a monumental task to lift the team and supporters.
Adding to the current sense of uneasiness is the still vivid memory of being dumped out of the cup by today’s opponents five years ago. Same ground, same competition, same round. No Hibs fan wishes to recall season 2013-14. Not only did it end with relegation, it also featured an ignominious Scottish Cup exit for Terry Bucher’s side at the hands of Raith.
It just so happens that Grant Murray, the interim assistant manager who is so unwillingly being pushed back into the limelight, masterminded what at the time represented yet more Scottish Cup heartache for Hibs.
Murray’s Raith earned a shock 3-2 victory after a sequence of five games without a goal. It was the beginning of the end for Butcher. His side just won twice more that season and were relegated after a play-off defeat at the hands of Hamilton Accies. Murray left Raith in 2015, later pitching up as a youth coach at Hibs.
“The plan that day was to have that belief and try to frustrate Hibs as a team,” recalled Murray, who has temporarily stepped up from his position as first-team coach to assist caretaker manager Eddie May. “Whether it had an effect on the fans or not, that was outwith our hands. We were fortunate that we managed to get the first goal – and we got it quite early.
“It just gave the players a lift. It could have gone either way. We could have gone behind and not got ourselves back in it. We just had that wee bit of belief and probably a big bit of luck.”
Surely, given the thrill such a win must have provided at the time, Murray is enjoying the higher profile that comes from being back in the frontline? “No, not at all,” he said. “As I say, all we are interested in is the players being ready. It is as simple as that.”
Murray joined May in the dugout for the league game with St Mirren following Lennon’s initail suspension.
He has helped take the team for another two games, including at Celtic Park in midweek. As with May, it’s an arrangement he clearly finds uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the sense of stepping into a dead man’s shoes. Lennon was such a strong, all-powerful figure, it’s still hard for anyone, including reporters, to accept he’s no longer part of the Hibs story. It’s also impossible to ignore his contribution.
Sean Mackie was assigned to give the players’ viewpoint yesterday, presumably partly on account of him being a former Raith Rover. It was Lennon who pushed the 20-year-old on as substitute in his breakthrough appearance against Celtic in December and gave him his first start.
Mackie revealed he might have been a Hearts player. Both Hibs and Hearts wanted to sign him from Raith. He went to see what the Tynecastle club had to offer first but when they demanded an answer by the end of that weekend, he declined their advances. Hibs were a more practical choice in any case – he is from Elphinstone, five minutes from the Hibs training centre in East Lothian.
“I got my move here on the back of my time at Raith,” he explained. “I didn’t think anybody was looking at me but Ray McKinnon told me Hibs and Hearts were interested. The gaffer at Raith said it was a good opportunity for me and was happy for me to go. He told me to go on trial with them both and then make my mind up from there.
“I enjoyed it at Hearts but they told me I had to make a decision by the end of the weekend. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to have a look at Hibs as well. I went to a game against Alloa, spoke to Alan Stubbs and I decided I wanted to come here. I’d been here before when I was younger and I knew the facilities were good and things like that. There was a good vibe.”
That was then, this is now. Easter Road chief executive Leeann Dempster has been forced to conduct an in-house interview denying claims she is presiding over a club in crisis. There is a threat the atmosphere could darken today.