Hibs' Neil Lennon tips Simon Murray and Anthony Stokes to shine
The striker was given an ovation when he was replaced late on, the worries of those Hibs fans who feared he was not up to the standard required having seemingly melted away.
The Dundonian certainly has his eye in, with free-scoring Ayr United in his sights in a Betfred Cup last 16 tie at Easter Road tonight.
Even Neil Lennon yesterday admitted Murray has “exceeded expectations”. But then the manager clearly knew he was capable of slipping into a higher gear having pursued him for so long.
Eight goals scored, including one on his league debut, suggests the former Dundee United player will be a more than adequate foil for Anthony Stokes, whose third period at Hibs began in earnest on Saturday with a cameo appearance.
Lennon, pictured, has high hopes they can form a productive partnership and prove wrong those predicting Hibs might struggle for goals in the absence of Jason Cummings, their top scorer in the last three seasons.
Lennon dubbed the maverick Stokes as “The Rascal”. The more straightforward, less experienced Murray means they have a ready-made partnership label – the Rascal and the Rookie.
“Predominantly, I will go with two strikers,” said Lennon. “I have done that throughout my managerial career, because they make the difference at the top end of the pitch. I think I’ve got two really good ones in that pair, plus another who is different in Deivydas [Matulevicius].
“I’ve got Martin Boyle I can throw up there, as well. We like to keep defenders occupied. That’s key at this level.”
With Stokes still to get up to speed fitness-wise, Murray is shouldering a lot of responsibility. The reception he got from fans at the weekend underlines how much his hard work, allied to goals, is being appreciated.
“He scores the kinds of goals I like – tap-ins,” said Lennon. “He’s able to get between the posts and he’s got a couple of headers already, a couple of goals from close range and he scored a penalty at the weekend.
“I’ve had all kinds of different striker goals from him already. I knew all about his workrate and his physical attributes but what I saw on Saturday that pleased me was his link-up play, which was superb. Even his first touch, which has been a little bit inconsistent, was very, very good.
“So, he’s in a good place at the minute and, yes, he has exceeded my expectations at the minute, so far. But we’re only one game into the season – give him five!”
Lennon admitted Hibs cannot fail to feel the absence of the irrepressible Cummings, both on the park and off it. “He (Murray) is not a like-for-like replacement for Jason,” said the manager. “Players like Jason are very difficult to replace, but Simon’s got different qualities that he’s brought to the team. Allied to Stokes and [Danny] Swanson and [Martin] Boyle, we’ve got a decent frontline now.”
The absence of a mention for Brian Graham – he also wasn’t in Saturday’s squad – suggests the striker’s time could be coming to an end at Easter Road, with the transfer window remaining open only until the end of the month.
“He’s going to find it difficult,” said Lennon. “There’s competition in that area, with us bringing in Deivydas as well. If there is interest in him that’s good,” he added. “He’s going to struggle to find a regular place here this season and I’ve told Brian that as well. But if he’s willing to fight for his place then we’re more than happy for him to do that.”
Lennon was more than respectful when contemplating the task facing Hibs tonight. He already knows Ayr United are capable of causing his side problems, having lost once and been held at home by them once in the league last season.
Now two divisions separate the teams. But the way Ayr United have started the current campaign – Ian McCall’s team have scored 16 goals in their last three outings – means Lennon isn’t tempted to revise his opinion that it’s set to prove a tricky tie at a stage where Hibs were eliminated 12 months ago.
“I will make changes but not wholesale,” he said. “I am not even thinking about Rangers on Saturday. That will take care of itself when it comes around.”