While Danny Lennon’s primary focus at Easter Road this weekend will be on trying to mastermind an away win, the Alloa Athletic manager would be entitled to take a moment to reflect on the rise of two opposing players whose careers he effectively launched.
Without his input, there is no guarantee Darren McGregor or John McGinn would have been arriving at Hibs as highly-regarded signings this summer.
In 2008, Lennon signed McGregor for Cowdenbeath from Arniston Rangers before taking the defender into the full-time ranks two years later, immediately after landing the role as St Mirren manager. A further two years down the line, Lennon set the wheels in motion for McGinn when he handed him his first-team debut with the Paisley club. The two players in question have hardly looked back since the former Hibs midfielder first placed his faith in them.
“I had the pleasure of managing Darren for a number of years,” Lennon said. “I had him in my Cowdenbeath team when we won back-to-back promotions and I thought he was good enough to step up to the top flight so I took him with me to St Mirren. A lot of people questioned that decision at first but he went on to be our player of the year. He then missed almost two full seasons through injury.
“We were flying at the start of our second season, sitting in the top six with Darren playing terrifically well, but then he tore his cruciate at Tannadice. He worked incredibly hard to come back from that, but then within a few games of the start of the following season [2012/13], the Hibs goalkeeper [Ben Williams] landed on his leg and he tore the cruciate in his other knee. That certainly would have finished most players, but not Darren. He put in tremendous effort every day to get playing and he did that.
“He then got his move to Rangers. Again, people questioned whether he was good enough to go to such a big club, but he was voted player of the year there last season.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be a very valuable player for Hibs this season. He’s got such a tremendous appetite for the game and he’s such a positive person. He’s a fantastic pro with great character about him. He’s got the kind of positive personality that you want to have in your dressing-room and out on the pitch. His attitude always rubs off on people. There isn’t a manager in the world who wouldn’t want that type of character in their dressing-room or in their team. He was a pleasure to work with.”
McGregor had already been cast aside by Cowdenbeath in 2006 when Mixu Paatelainen, another former Hibs player, was in charge, but Lennon gave him the chance to return to Central Park two years later after seeing potential in him.
“He had been at Cowden before under Mixu but he was young at that time and it can be difficult to gauge young players,” he said. “Sometimes players don’t set the heather alight straight away. I was looking for a centre-half and initially it was through word of mouth that his name came up. I looked through files on him from when he had been at the club previously and we invited him to train with us for pre-season. He handled it well and the rest is history. I’ve got to give a bit of credit there to Jim Methven, my chairman at Cowdenbeath, who invested £1500 out of his own pocket to sign him from Arniston. Since then, Darren’s taken giant steps forward year in, year out.”
Lennon believes the fact McGregor was able to bounce back from being released by Cowden nine years ago highlights the resolve that has allowed him to play for two of the biggest clubs in Scotland despite working full-time in a clothes shop until he was 24. “It’s testament to Darren’s character that he went away from Cowdenbeath, played at Arniston and came back to play at the level he’s now reached,” said Lennon. “What a whirlwind it has been for him to go from that part-time football to go on and have four good years in professional football with St Mirren, then get a fantastic move to one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, and then to top it all off he finds himself at his boyhood club. It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff.
“There will be other players out there who can do what Darren did but the key thing is that they have a strong mentality and an unbelievable workrate which they bring to every training session and every match. Darren certainly has all that in abundance.”
Lennon speaks in equally glowing terms of McGinn, a player he first introduced to the St Mirren midfield two days after the player’s 18th birthday. “I had the privilege of giving John his professional debut,” he said. “I had been watching him in the development team and had him regularly training with the first team to try and bridge the gap. He oozed potential, he was an absolutely fantastic young player. He was comfortable on the ball and wasn’t fazed at all being among the senior players.
“I put him on for his debut as a sub against Celtic and I remember him giving Victor Wanyama a hard time. I then gave him his first start against Dundee and he set up the opening goal. Shortly after that, he became a regular in the first team as a teenager. I also had the privilege of making him captain of the Scotland Under-21 team during my time as interim manager.”
Lennon recalls McGinn playing a prominent role in St Mirren’s 2013 League Cup final victory over Hearts and believes his protégé would have ended up at a higher level than the Scottish Championship had he not been part of a Buddies team that was overwhelmed in the top flight last season. Nonetheless, he believes Hibs, under Alan Stubbs, is the perfect club for the 20-year-old to continue his development.
“He’s a very level-headed lad and he’s got strength on the ball, incredible vision and tremendous technical ability,” said Lennon. “He was instrumental in our League Cup final win. For young shoulders, he has picked up a lot of experience and played in a lot of big games.
“If last season had gone a bit better for him in terms of injuries and St Mirren getting relegated, I think he’d probably have ended up moving to a higher league, but Hibs will be a really good move for him. That environment and the brand of football they play will bring out the best in him. If he keeps working hard, I can only see him going from strength to strength at Hibs and having a great career.”
Despite his obvious involvement, Lennon is reluctant to take praise for the progress of McGregor and McGinn.
“I look out for every player I’ve worked with and it’s always nice to think you’ve had a wee touch in these boys’ careers,” he said. “At the end of the day, though, it’s the players who have done the hard work to get to the level they’re at. As managers and coaches, all we do is give them a platform. They’ve got to grab it. It’s absolutely delightful when you see players you’ve worked with progressing to higher levels.”