DARREN McGREGOR may not be able to take to the Tynecastle pitch on Saturday as his St Mirren side travel to Hearts, but the highly-rated Edinburgh-born centre-half is hoping he’ll be there in the stands cheering his team-mates on.
After suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury last month against Dundee United at Tannadice, McGregor has been told he faces six-to-nine months on the sidelines. He’s even been told he shouldn’t sit in the stand for a full 90 minutes, his physio mindful of the impact that could have on his recovery.Even still, the upbeat Leither, a Hibs fan to boot, is confident he can be there to offer support to the Buddies as they look to continue their good start to the season.
“I was told because I’m still recovering from the cruciate, sitting for an hour-and-a-half wouldn’t be the best, so Hibs at Easter Road [at the end of last month] was the only game I saw,” said McGregor.
“I feel even better now and will speak to our physio Gerry Docherty to see if I can go through. Tynecastle’s a great place. Before I played there, the boys in the changing room said it was one of the best places to play. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a great place to go. I’m sure the guys will go there and do well. We should have gone there last season and won [when Hearts won 3-2 with two late goals in March].
St Mirren have been lauded for their start of their season. They currently lie sixth in the SPL, on nine points alongside Hearts and Kilmarnock. Their style of play, as well as their league position, has been the subject of many plaudits. Gone is the industrial element of their game, replaced by slick passing, pace and movement. Manager Danny Lennon made shrewd signings in the summer. Steven Thompson, a former Scotland international, arrived from Burnley and has led the line well, ably supported by Nigel Hasselbaink, signed from Hamilton, former Wigan man Gary Teale and Paul McGowan, who made last year’s loan move from Celtic a permanent one. The defence has been fortified too, with Dutchmen Jeroen Tesselaar and Ilias Haddad earning rave reviews for their recent performances. As a consequence, they arrive at Tynecastle a dangerous side, one certainly capable of causing Hearts issues.
“I think because we started the season so well and set such high standards, we were disappointed with a draw at St Johnstone last weekend. Maybe last season, we would be happy with that. We are controlling games without scoring as many as we’d like, but it’s only a matter of time before we start hitting the net.
“I definitely think we can go there and get something. I’m not going to spout that we’ll get three points. I think it’s imperative that we do well defensive-wise, and while we’ve not scored many goals that will take care of itself.”
The win over Hibs last month, which saw the Paisley side come back from 1-0 down to win 2-1, confirmed the character and ability of the squad, a fact not lost on McGregor.
“All the boys last year played their part but the gaffer’s trimmed down the squad,” said the 26-year-old. “Boys like Steve Thompson and Gary Teale are Scottish internationalists, and Paul McGowan has got his head down and worked hard – he’s not in the mindset anymore that he’s only on loan. I think the guys who have come in have done well. Guys like wee Nigel has done well – nobody really paid him that much attention but with our style of play, he has come on, too. All these players will play their part on Saturday.
“Any win at Tynecastle is welcome. You either rise or sink in the occasion. I certainly thrived on it. The way the stadium is shaped, the fans are right beside you. It brought the best out of me when I played there, and I’m sure the other guys rise to it. I was looking forward to the abuse [due to my affiliation with Hibs], but it never came – they targeted other boys first!”
When not attempting to attract the attention of Tynecastle’s boo-boys last season, McGregor, who is out of contract at the end of this campaign, posted some fine displays at the heart of defence. Proving he has what it takes at SPL level after joining from Cowdenbeath in the summer of 2010 makes his current circumstance all the more difficult to stomach. His sojourn to the Easter Road stand rather than the turf offered him a keen sense of perspective on what it is like being an injured football player.
“It was a bit strange to be honest,” recalls McGregor. “Last time I’d been to Easter Road, I was playing – it was difficult. I had a wee minute to myself: it was a nice sunny day and the players were on a lovely pitch in a nice stadium, and I thought to myself then that being a football player is incredible and you’re just thankful for what you do. That just compounded the fact I was injured and it gave fuel to the fire for me to get fit again as soon as possible.
“My first season in the SPL was a bit of a whirlwind and it was quite hard to take it all in,” McGregor continued. “I never had time to take it in and at the end of the season, people were asking me how I felt I’d done and I didn’t know. Then, I went on holiday and reflected. I was delighted, and I’d played 43 games. I thought I’d take time to learn off some of the older guys, but the gaffer threw me straight in.”
St Mirren haven’t won at Tynecastle since Boxing Day of 2007, when Stephen McGinn scored in a 1-0 victory. McGregor was playing for Arniston Rangers at that time, which shows the rapid progress he has made as a player. He may not be able to make it on to the pitch but a seat in the stand and a watching brief will make up one small part of the long journey back to full fitness he is willing to take.