Darren McGregor is confident Hibs are equipped to clip Aberdeen’s wings as they face their toughest test of the season at Hampden today.
The 31-year-old is a central figure in a highly-regarded defensive unit which will be tasked with keeping at bay a dangerous Dons attack.
Central striker Adam Rooney has scored 17 goals this season; supporting midfielder Kenny McLean is in excellent form, and Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn are widely viewed as two of the most threatening wide men in Scotland.
However, McGregor, who is likely to be part of a back four comprising Efe Ambrose and dependable full-backs David Gray and Lewis Stevenson, is adamant Hibs can stand up to what looks a formidable challenge.
“There are two main threats for me in the Aberdeen team,” said McGregor. “As we are well aware, they are very good at set-pieces. They have proven that. I watched the Dundee game and I thought they were outstanding. But we’ve got a good aerial presence and are good at defending set-pieces. Their wingers cause lots of teams problems. Jonny Hayes and McGinn are great players, but to counter that, we’ve got Dave Gray and Lewis Stevenson. There are not many guys get past them and get crosses into the box. It will definitely be a good duel but I’m confident that we will prevail.”
As well as the faith he has in the two full-backs, McGregor also takes confidence from the fact he will have Ambrose alongside him. The Nigerian has been a revelation since arriving on loan from Celtic at the start of March.
“He was unfairly made a scapegoat and frowned upon at Celtic but he shows his class here,” said McGregor. “He is so relaxed and composed on the ball, which is completely the opposite to what I am. He is great to have around. He is so happy and cheerful. He brings a real lightening mood to the team. It’s just a shame that we probably won’t be able to keep him with the wage bracket he is on, but it has been good to have him. I’d say our most important game of the season was Dundee United away [last month] and he won man of the match that night, which shows you how influential he was. He has been a massive factor in getting us over the line.”
McGregor does not believe there is a big gulf between Aberdeen, who are nine points clear in second place in the Premiership, and Hibs, who sealed the Championship title last weekend. The defender insists all the pressure is on the Dons, however, because his own team won the Scottish Cup last year and have already achieved their primary objective for this season.
‘I think we match up very well to Aberdeen,” he said. “All the pressure is honestly on them. We set out at the start of the season and the mandate was to win the league. Anything else was a bonus. Now that apprehension is away and we’re heading into this game confident, with clear minds.
“We know that Aberdeen are strong all over the park. They’ve got some really good players. In fact, I don’t think they’ve got any weaknesses, to be honest. But I believe that we’re a big-game team. We’ve proved that in past years.
“It’s a win-win for us. If we go and just give a good account of ourselves, the fans will be happy because we’ve won the league and reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
“If we do manage to win, it’s the cherry on top of the cake, another Scottish Cup Final – which the Hibs fans have been spoiled with.”
Last year, the Scottish Cup triumph effectively salvaged Hibs’ season after they missed out on promotion and lost the League Cup final to Ross County. This time round, the Easter Road side are able to approach their trip to Hampden in a more relaxed manner.
“Last year, we had all our eggs in one basket, everything riding on the Scottish Cup as a saving grace,” said McGregor. “So the anxiety and apprehension going into that game was huge because we knew it all came down to that.
“But this time we go into it knowing we’ve won the league, knowing we’ve given a good account of ourselves to reach the last four as holders. So, if it ends here, we’ve done well. But I’m confident it won’t end here.”
McGregor doesn’t expect to be as anxious today as he was when he arrived at Hampden for last year’s final against Rangers. However, he insists Hibs’ laidback approach to this weekend’s encounter shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of desire to retain their trophy.
“When I arrived at Hampden, I was nervous, to be honest. Of course I was,” he said. “Every player will tell you the same thing. I was even more nervous because, deep down, I knew what it meant to the fans. The Ross County loss in the League Cup final, we’d come so close, I knew we’d been so close in the play-off against Falkirk.
“So, personally, going up against a team that had released me the year before, it was massive. But, if you overthink it, it can be catastrophic. For me, it was just about breathing and taking in the spectacle, trying to do my job as best as I could. I felt I did that, apart from letting Kenny Miller score!
“Ask any player, these are the games you want to play in, at Hampden, in front of 50,000 fans, for the club you support. This year is a tad easier because we’ve done what we set out to do in winning the title.
“But we’ve still got the passion and the desire to win it again. And I believe that the squad we’ve got is good enough.”