A Hampden day out for Hibs has previously tended to involve Darren McGregor taking his seat among the supporters. This Sunday, the born-and-bred Leither will be carrying the hopes and dreams of all his fellow Hibees on his broad shoulders as he tries to repel Ross County and bring the League Cup to Easter Road for the first time in nine years.
As much as he recognises the magnitude of the transition in roles, however, the 30-year-old has played professional football long enough now to deal with casting aside the frenzied passion of a supporter in the stand and remaining a clear-headed footballer on the pitch.
“I’ve been in Hampden when there’s been 25-30,000 Hibs fans and a sea of green and white, and it’s just unbelievable,” he said before flying back from Hibs’ training camp on the Costa del Sol last night. “To be plonked in the middle of that will be a bit surreal.”
Focus is the buzzword for McGregor. He admits nerves are inevitable as he prepares for the biggest match of his career, but he believes “going into auto-pilot” will prevent him wilting amid the pressure that will have built up around the national stadium come 3pm on Sunday.
“It’s in your consciousness that there’s a big game coming up but I’m probably not as hyped up as a fan would be,” he said. “I speak to fans, even at previous clubs, before big games and they say ‘you’re not geed up enough’. I’m always tuned in for a game but it needs to be controlled because if you go in there at 90 miles an hour, you’ll just make mistakes and mistime tackles. You’ve got to be relaxed about it and not thinking about the magnitude of it too much.
“You can’t think too much about how many fans are going to be there, what’s going to happen if you win, what you’re going to do after it. All these things are irrelevant just now. You almost need to detach yourself from the crowd and keep yourself focused on the confines of the pitch as opposed to glancing around and trying to find family members in the stand.
“Every player’s different in how they deal with these situations. I go into auto-pilot in terms of focusing on my job. Having said that, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t recognise the size and noise of the crowd. You get nervous in a situation like that but I think you need nerves. There are different ways of handling nerves. You try to stay positive but you wouldn’t be human if wee negatives didn’t enter your mind and you didn’t think ‘what if this or that happens?’ You just need to be professional and try to do your job to the best of your ability.
“It’s about concentrating on the job at hand which, for me, is winning my headers, making my tackles and playing simple passes to the boys who can actually play. Likewise Dave Gray will do his job, and the guys up ahead of us will do their jobs and hopefully it all comes together and we win the cup.”
If it pans out that way, it will go down as McGregor’s greatest day yet in what has been a fairytale emergence as a professional footballer. As is now well-documented, the defender was the manager of Xile clothes shop in Princes Mall until being offered a route into full-time football at the age of 24 when Danny Lennon invited him to follow him from Cowdenbeath to St Mirren. McGregor is cherishing every moment of his unlikely but hard-earned chance to represent the club he supported as a boy. Having proclaimed the Scottish Cup win over Hearts last month as his finest moment yet in the game, he hopes to take his accomplishments to another level on Sunday.
“Winning the cup would eclipse everything,” he said. “It’s the biggest game of my career so far. It’s got the most significance attached to it. I was at St Mirren when they played Hearts [in 2013] but I never took part so this is my first chance to take part in a national cup final and it’s with the team I supported as a boy. It’s an occasion I never thought would happen but to be in this position now is a bit overwhelming. I just need to get focused and help the guys win the cup.”
McGregor, who was recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury at the time, admits he struggled to feel a part of the victory celebrations in Paisley after his colleagues defeated Gary Locke’s Hearts side in the final three years ago. “It was good for the St Mirren boys to win it, but any injured player will tell you that you don’t get the same buzz as the boys that have played and contributed,” he said. “That’s just a winner’s mentality – you want to actually be part of it and help the team. When you’re in the stand watching, although you’re still delighted for the boys, it’s not quite the same. I was on the open-top bus and was at the party afterwards but I was training the following day, so I couldn’t partake in the free alcohol. I was at the tail end of my recovery from an ACL and I wasn’t far away, but it would have been wrong if I displaced any of the boys who had done well to get us there. I enjoyed the day and the occasion but it’s so different this time to have a proper chance of adding a cup win to your career. It’s not often you get this opportunity. I was speaking to Lewis Stevenson there, who won it in 2007. He said that, being a youngster, he took it for granted that it could happen every year, but it’s not like that unless you’re at a real top-level team.”
McGregor was at the 2007 final as a fan, although he can’t remember much about it. “I was at the game but, bizarrely, the only thing I really remember about it was wee Lewie getting man of the match,” he said. “I remember him being a young boy and thinking ‘this guy’s talented.’ I was speaking to him about it the other day but I can hardly recall the goals or anything else that happened in the game. I don’t know why it is, but we’d been to a few semis and finals at Hampden around that time and they seem to blend into one, for me.
“Funnily enough, I’ve actually got a better memory of the 1991 Skol Cup win. I wasn’t there but I got given a VHS of the cup run that year so I was able to watch it back. I think it’s time I made some memories of my own though.”