Upon leaving Leith Links around 7.30pm last night, a group of Leith Athletic representatives and parents of young players were standing outside the changing-room discussing how proud they were at the sight of Hibs defender Darren McGregor back on his old stomping ground with the Scottish Cup. “He’s the only Leither in the team that won it – I’m just so glad there was one!” was the statement overheard from one local.
Amid all the understandable hysteria over the last three-and-a-half months about captain David Gray scoring a stoppage-time winner, two-goal Anthony Stokes being on fire, Liam Henderson’s ability to deliver and Lewis Stevenson becoming a double trophy winner, there was a danger of perhaps the greatest tale of all the individuals who played at Hampden on May 21, 2016 not getting the prominence in the narrative that it merited.
Last night, however, the only Leither in the team that finally ended the infamous 114-year wait for Scottish Cup glory got the chance to take the trophy back into his old heartland as part of the club’s Persevered Scottish Cup Trophy Tour. McGregor stood beside the changing-rooms for over an hour, chatting and having pictures taken with starry-eyed youngsters – and their parents. In relative terms, this was the ultimate story of the “local lad made good” coming back to where it all began.
“I was delighted to come down here with the cup,” he told the Evening News.
“It means a lot to give a bit back and give a bit of inspiration to the young guys here that they can do something like this if they stick at their football. I never even won the Scottish Cup at juvenile level, so to win it at professional level and then come down here and parade it in front of all these youngsters is an honour. Hopefully, these wee guys can use it as motivation to kick on and do something in the game themselves. “For me, this is where it all started, playing on these exact grass pitches from Under-11s to Under-19s before I went to Cowdenbeath. It was my only juvenile club, so this was all I knew as an up-and-coming footballer. “I used to get driven here by Stuart Low, my friend Patrick’s dad. He was a great guy, a teacher who used to pick me up at my house in North Fort Street and take me down to Leith Links twice a week for years because my dad wasn’t into it. I thank him massively for keeping me involved or none of this might have happened for me.
“My mum still stays in Leith so I’m back down to see her, but this is the first time I’ve been back at Leith Athletic since I left. Everything’s still really similar apart from the fact the club’s got even bigger.
“When I first joined, there were maybe only about five age-groups, but now you can join at about Under-5s and go all the way up to senior level.
“The changing rooms are in the exact same location but they seem a lot smaller. We trained on every available patch of grass on the Links over the years but when you’re a youngster the facilities don’t bother you.
“As long as you’ve got somewhere to change and grass to play on, you’re happy.
“Where the Scottish Cup parade ended on the Sunday actually signified quite a lot to me because that was actually the area of grass I first started playing on as an 11-year-old. It’s hard for me to put into words what it meant to me to bring the Scottish Cup back to that very spot.”
McGregor’s rise to hometown Scottish Cup hero is as remarkable as it is well-documented. In an era when youngsters can be recruited to academies before they’ve started high school and mollycoddled through their teenage years, it is unusual to find a player who prospers after staying in the boys clubs’ ranks into their late teens. McGregor, of course, didn’t even turn professional until a few weeks before his 25th birthday when Danny Lennon took him from Cowdenbeath to St Mirren in 2010. The 31-year-old will be forever indebted to his local club for giving him such a sound and enjoyable grounding in football.
“It was good to come and give a wee bit back to a club that was instrumental in my upbringing,” he said. “Not in a million years could I have imagined when I was playing here at 18 years old that I would go on and win the Scottish Cup with Hibs. It wasn’t through a lack of belief, but there’s a notion now that if you’re not signed up with Hibs or Hearts by Under-15s, then you’re done and dusted.
“The majority of boys of my age who went on to make it were already signed up by professional clubs. When you’re in the position I was in, you start to discover drink and girls and it can easily go wayward from there but, thankfully, I always liked to keep fit. As I got a bit older, I went to my work during the week, but I did my football training twice a week, I went to the gym every day and I played on a Saturday, so I always kept myself ticking over. In the end, I got a big slice of luck but I worked hard for it.”
Leigh Griffiths, the Celtic and Scotland striker, also came through Leith Athletic as a boy but he entered the professional ranks at a far earlier age than McGregor.
“Sparky was about five years below me but I was aware of him,” said the Hibs defender. “From a young age, he was always touted as being a player, but I think a lot of folk would have looked at me at 16 and wrote me off straight away. I was never the greatest player, in fact I’m still not, to be honest. I think I’ve just worked hard, and been reliable and honest.
“I was the only one who made it professional from my age-group at Leith. From memory, the only boys I played against at juvenile level were Ian Black and Christophe Berra, but they got signed up by professional clubs about 14 or 15 years old – a lot earlier than me. The fact that, out of a such a large pool of juvenile players, so few of us made it just shows how hard it is for boys’ club players to make it now – but it can be done if you work hard and have belief. I’ve just spoken to 100 wee guys there, and if even meeting them and getting a photo with the cup puts a wee bit between their teeth and a bit of fire in their bellies, then I’d be delighted.”
The personnel at Leith Athletic has changed over the years. Gerry Freedman – who McGregor describes as his “mentor and a lifelong Hibby” – has stepped down but Derek Riddel, one of his other coaches at youth level, remains involved with the club as manager of the senior team, who are East of Scotland League champions and are involved in the Scottish Cup this year. After negotiating two preliminary rounds, they face Cumbernauld Colts in the first round later this month. There is an obvious potential fourth-round tie which would suit both Leith Athletic and McGregor down to the ground.
“What a story it would be if they could get themselves through to the fourth round and potentially played us and got a wee money-spinner,” he said. “It would be great to give them a wee glory day like that.”
In the meantime, the only glory day that matters to the Hibs fraternity of Leith is May 21, 2016. McGregor, the humble local lad who still had a “normal job” – in a city centre clothes shop – until he was 24 and eventually went on to score the first goal in the campaign – away to Raith Rovers – and play a prominent role in the final, will always have a prominent place in Hibernian and Leith folklore.
“It’s a great story, coming from where I do, working in a clothes store until I was almost 25, finally turning pro at St Mirren, then having two bad cruciate injuries, and then winning the Scottish Cup as a Leither and a Hibs fan,” he said.
“I think the fans can associate themselves with that and appreciate the hard work I’ve put in to get there. When my career’s done and dusted, I’ll always treasure the fact I was the only Leither in the Hibs team that finally won the Scottish Cup.”