All his life Darren McGregor has dreamt of playing in an Edinburgh derby.
But up until now at the age of 30, he always thought the closest he would ever get would be those childhood kickabouts with friends as they enacted their own Hibs v Hearts matches.
McGregor hopes his dream will finally become reality on Sunday as Hibs cross the Capital for the second time in eight days hoping to emulate their League Cup triumph over St Johnstone by knocking their closest rivals out of the Scottish Cup. Boss Alan Stubbs will, of course, have the final say, McGregor one of those disappointed not to start against the Saints last weekend but hoping he did enough in the midweek victory over Morton to earn the nod.
Today, the lifelong Hibs fan recalled: “Growing up in Leith the derby was the biggest game in world football. We didn’t know your Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and what not. They didn’t have the exposure they enjoy nowadays, so our world was the Edinburgh teams.
“Obviously we knew about Ranges and Celtic, but as a Hibs fan you knew Hearts were the enemy and the derby was always one we’d create playing on concrete at the Citadel. We divided into Hibs and Hearts fans – although there wasn’t too many of them to be fair – and played as if it was the derby itself.
“I remember going to a couple of the real thing; the passion, the intensity, the players determined to win and the fans desperate for the bragging rights. It’s something as a young boy I’d always imagined doing so it is good to get to this point and my age to be in the position to potentially play in one. It will be another one off the bucket list.”
Even six years ago as he worked behind the counter in the fashion store Xile and played part-time for Arniston Rangers, McGregor never thought he’d see the day when he would pull on the green and white, never mind in a derby.
He said: “I never gave it a thought that this might happen one day. If you had come into that store and told me that by the time I was 30 I’d have played for St Mirren and Hibs I would have laughed even at the thought. Obviously it is a dream, but one I never thought or imagined I would get anywhere near.
“My wee mate Jay Shields played in a couple of derbies and he used to give me it tight when he came to Cowdenbeath after Hibs knowing that was my ambition; hopefully I can give some of it back after Sunday.”
The thought of playing in an Edinburgh derby did not even cross McGregor’s mind when he made the move from Ibrox after being surprisingly released by Rangers despite being their player of the year last season, Hibs still stuck in the Championship as Hearts regained their place in the top flight.
He said: “Just signing for Hibs was a massive thing, all I wanted to do was get myself established and play. I didn’t even watch the Scottish Cup draw. I was out for dinner and when the texts started coming in that it was Hearts at Tynecastle I thought it was a wind-up. But it’s a massive bonus.”
McGregor, scorer of Hibs’ 1000th goal in the Scottish Cup as he set his side on the way to victory over Raith Rovers in the previous round, agrees Hearts will probably start as favourites given their Premiership status, but insisted the fact Hibs have defeated Aberdeen, Dundee United and now St Johnstone to set up a League Cup final against yet another top-tier outfit in Ross County should not be ignored.
“I would probably admit Hearts are slight favourites,” he said. “But we are on a magnificent run and we want to go into the game and win it. Robbie Neilson has built a very good squad, they have strength in depth and there’s a lot of big guys in that team.
“But it’s about how we handle the situation. Whoever handles it right will win the game. I’m confident in the lads we have, we have strength in depth as well, we’ve shown we can handle awkward situations and we won’t be fazed at all.
“Anthony Stokes has played at every level imaginable. For me he is a massive asset but he will also bring on Jason Cummings and James Keatings. The likes of Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeouch have played in big games at Parkhead, John McGinn has won the League Cup. They are young but they’ve experienced it and have the tools to deal with any situation.”
Only a few days ago Hibs fans occupied three of the four stands at Tynecastle, this time round they’ll only have one but McGregor reckons that will make little difference although he believes the experience of a full-house in Gorgie will have given Easter Road newcomers a sense of what to expect.
He said: “Having such a hostile crowd can work for or against you. You can use it to your advantage by making a good start and I’m sure the gaffer will have a plan for us.
“Tynecastle generates an intense atmosphere. I’ve been there with St Mirren and Rangers but I’m led to believe this will be something else. But we’ve beaten three Premiership sides so we’re happy to be the underdogs. There’s the pressure on both teams from their fans to win.”
So far it has been a good week for Hibs, a day out at Hampden to look forward to and that Stokes goal at Cappielow ensuring they remain very much in the race for the Championship title but McGregor insists he doesn’t subscribe to the old Meat Loaf classic “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”.
He said: “To cap of this week with another victory would be a marvellous achievement. These young lads have been asked to do real hard work. Morton was a hard game because the St Johnstone win was demanding both physically and emotionally, getting to a final and for the first time for many of them.
“So to go to Greenock on a Tuesday night, cold, wet and windy as it was and to come away with a victory says a lot about the team.”