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Big guns facing a battle

IT is something Scottish football administrators have apparently been trying to gerrymander for years.

Dumbarton manager Ian Murray believes Hearts are best equipped to escape from the ChampionshipPhotograph: SNS
Dumbarton manager Ian Murray believes Hearts are best equipped to escape from the ChampionshipPhotograph: SNS

An exciting, unpredictable league featuring multiple equally-matched big clubs, with unforeseen pitfalls waiting in store for them each week. The only problems are that the league in question just happens to be Scotland's second tier rather than the top flight.

Broadcasters and media outlets are being forced to radically reassess priorities in the wake of Hibernian's relegation to the Championship last Sunday, where they will join Hearts and Rangers. While the top division promises to see Celtic again disappear over the horizon, when it comes to novelty value and potential jeopardy - three into two won't go - nothing will hold a candle to the Championship.

Ian Murray is primed to be both an expert witness and a major participant. The 33-year-old will always view events at Hibernian through the eyes of a concerned former player. But this coming season he will examine their flaws in a different manner entirely: that of a hungry young manager seeking the scalp of one of his rivals.

The Dumbarton manager, who signed a two-year extension to his deal at the Bet Butler stadium only weeks ago, after he was linked with vacancies at Morton and St Mirren, was surprised but not shocked when the side where he spent 10 years across two different spells, racking up more than 250 appearances, dropped into the division below.

While he rejected the notion of a wider malaise afflicting the club, and had words of support for embattled chairman Rod Petrie, Murray did sense something of a superiority complex around Easter Road during his second spell at the club. He feels that they - and their Championship rivals Hearts and Rangers - will be in for a rude awakening if they cannot come to terms with their diminished surroundings.

"The sooner the three teams accept they are Championship clubs, then the easier it will be for them," said Murray. "If they think teams like ourselves, Alloa, Cowdenbeath or Falkirk are not good enough to beat them at this present time - and I don't know who they are all going to buy - then they are mistaken.

"A lot of my friends are Hibs fans, a lot of my friends are Hearts fans, and they all think they are going to win the league. I am telling them 'just calm yourself down' because if I go to Tynecastle, Easter Road or Ibrox in the cup then I think we have a real chance to win that game.

"It was like when I looked at the play-off match between Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath," added Murray, down in Largs this week as he completed his A coaching licence. "I couldn't for the life of me work out why Dunfermline were favourites. Even after the draw in the first leg. I knew Cowdenbeath were better away from home, and I knew [Greg] Stewart (now of Dundee) and [Kane] Hemmings when they play are as good as any you will find in the division. But people automatically just thought Dunfermline would beat Cowdenbeath - 'bigger club, better players'."

From the high watermark of third under Tony Mowbray in 2004/05, Hibs' last four league finishes have been 10th, 11th, seventh, 11th: poor fare for a club with an infrastructure and wage bill which is the envy of most. While relations between manager Terry Butcher and his players were icey - 14 players were released and the remainder of the squad told they can find new clubs - Murray doesn't necessarily agree with former boss Pat Fenlon's recent claim that the club has lost its identity.

Moreoever, amid fan protests about their chairman, he feels Petrie is rather unfairly maligned and relegation could, in fact, prove a rallying point for the club.

"I used to say to people 'we have no right to go and beat teams like Ross County or Inverness any more because we are in the same league'," recalled Murray. "We needed to lose that tag of thinking we are better than we are. But I never found the club in any shape or form a bad place to work whatsoever. It was always like any other club, the manager trying to get you going.

"The fans aren't happy - everyone knows that," he added. "They are finding it hard to keep going back.

"I have got sympathy with Rod as well. It is difficult to run a club. At Dumbarton, I am probably worse than the fans in terms of being at the chairman [Alan Jardine] asking for money, asking for things to happen. And he is telling me they can't happen. But that is his expertise, it lies in accountancy, the same as Rod. We are exactly the same, albeit on a smaller scale.

"Rod takes a lot of flak, but people forget he did pretty much turn the club around. If fans run the club they will pretty much run it into the ground because they want to win cups and leagues.

"I don't know how to run a football club so it is hard for me to comment on it but I look over the city at Hearts and it took a pretty major downturn in their fortunes for them to rally together. Now this might be Hibs' rallying call. Get the fans back, support the team, get them back in the Premiership at the first time of asking. If Hibs are up the top of the league, the fans will turn out. There is no doubt about that."

As for Dumbarton, although they narrowly missed out on a play-off place last season, once again they will settle for finishing atop the mini-league of part-time clubs. As for who will sit in that automatic qualification spot, Murray favours the other team from the capital.

"The team that is probably most equipped for it right now is Hearts," he said. "They have known they were coming down for quite a while and have had a plan in place."

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