Leaving Hearts a good career decision for Liam Craig

IT’S the kind of statement likely to endear him to the Hibs support, especially in the build-up to a derby. According to Liam Craig, leaving Hearts was the making of him as a player.

Liam Craig didn't make an impact at Ipswich after leaving Hearts, but is doing so at Hibs. Picture: Ian Georgeson

“I was there for three or four years before I went down to Ipswich,” explains the midfielder. “I enjoyed it but when Ipswich came in I looked at their facilities up against Hearts’, who had nothing at the time, and I knew it would be the move that would make me better as a player.

“It was definitely the right move. There were a few things that went on at the time that I wasn’t too happy about. But I look back now and going to Ipswich was the best thing I did for my career.”

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That was when he was just 16, swapping home comforts for a better football future. “Training with the people I did and being coached by their coaches was incredible – to make that decision at 16 to move away from my family made me a better person as well.”

The journey may have begun as a youth with Hearts but there was always something in the background that suggested that he might end up on the other side of the capital.

At Ipswich he had benefitted from the coaching of Tony Mowbray before he had moved on to take the top job at Easter Road but when Craig’s time at Ipswich ended, he immediately contacted his former mentor.

“He was the first guy I phoned to see if he could help me out,” said the 26-year-old, who has already weighed in with six goals and will be one of those asked to pick up the slack with striker Paul Heffernan cup-tied and ineligible for the midweek match. “He had been great with me down there, made me feel really good and wanted. But he was honest enough to say I wouldn’t have played at Hibs because their midfield was strong at the time with the likes of Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson. I could have come and not played, so it was good he was honest, and I ended up at Falkirk which was again another good move for me.”

Even if he did end up at a club managed by John Hughes, a Hibs man who would eventually be one of Mowbray’s successors at the Leith side, and a man who made sure everyone who worked for him heard plenty about the team in green and white. “It’s great to be here now though, and I want to be successful with it. I was at Hampden for the semi against Falkirk last season, and even last Saturday when you see the fans belting out Sunshine on Leith, they’re special days.

“I was a Celtic fan growing up but these days I want the team I’m playing for to win. I do what I can for Hibs and we’ve turned a wee corner, and, now, getting to a final will be special.”

To do that they will have to safely negotiate two more rounds, starting with Hearts on Wednesday night. They lost the first head-to-head, just a couple of games into the SPFL campaign, but on home turf and with the greater momentum, Craig is confident that he will get one over the only team-mate from the Hearts youth system who remains at Tynecastle, goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. “My time there was nowhere near the start of the Romanov era, but I felt if I was going to become a better player, it was a move I had to make. Big Jamie was the goalie – it was a good squad we had there but there were another 15 guys in that Hearts team who didn’t make it so it shows you it’s all well and good having ability but you have to be lucky as well.

“I was disappointed not to get into Ipswich’s first team but what I learned down there in three years has made me the player I am today.”

MacDonald, a veteran in the Edinburgh derbies throughout the various age-groups, had the bragging rights back in August but despite their history there will be no pre-match wind-ups from the pair.

“We’ve lost touch a bit but we’ll probably speak after the game – or not, depending on how the game goes! But he’s a guy I have a lot of respect for. It’s great to see him doing well for Hearts.”

He hopes that form suffers a wobble this week, though. He is desperate for a more enjoyable outcome to a fixture keenly anticipated by every player involved and even more determined to finally progress through a knockout competition to the finale.

“As a new player [at Hibs], it was the first game I looked for when the fixtures came out. The atmosphere [in the first meeting of the season] was incredible as well, Tynecastle was always a place I liked going but to go there with Hibs was even more special.

“But it’ll be better with our fans here behind us and under the lights at Easter Road, it’ll be a special night.

“When I was at Falkirk we beat Celtic in the quarters, then lost to Killie 3-0 in the semis at Fir Park. Then Hibs went on to win the final 5-1. So I’ve been to a few semis but never a final and I want that to change. I definitely think I’ve signed for a team and play with a squad capable of doing that.”