Hibs captain started out as a striker until the ‘Hammer of the Hibs’ told him to play at the back
JAMES McPAKE stands on the threshold of becoming an Easter Road legend, the first Hibs captain to lift the Scottish Cup in 110 years – and it’s all thanks to Hearts icon John Robertson.
The 27-year-old has become a huge favourite with the green and white army with his rugged performances in central defence since his arrival on loan from Coventry City, helping the Capital club escape the clutches of relegation while steering them to today’s all-Edinburgh Cup final.
But, he revealed, he doubts very much if he’d even still be playing professional football but for the former Tynecastle striker, dubbed the “Hammer of Hibs” after notching up 27 goals in derby matches.
For it was under Robbo’s guidance at Livingston where McPake made the transformation from a not-so-promising centre-forward to defender and, now, just 90 minutes away from leading Hibs to Cup glory.
Although his potential as a stopper had been spotted by Archie Knox, then assistant at Almondvale to Richard Gough, it was under Robertson that McPake, who ironically made his Livi debut as a striker in a 3-1 defeat to Hibs at Easter Road eight years ago, blossomed as a player after taking the step back.
Now 27, McPake recalled: “Archie had me playing there in reserve games, he must have seen something and decided to give it a go.
“But Robbo was the one who gave me my chance week in, week out, playing at centre back. Thankfully it has worked. In my own opinion I was never a very good striker, I don’t think I was anywhere good enough to play at a decent enough level.
“I don’t want to sound big-headed, but it was easy for me. I had quality all around me, Dave Mackay at right back and Steven Tweed, two experienced players, so it was no problem with them telling me what to do.
“I’m thankful that Robbo put me back there because I doubt if I would still be playing. Having said that, I’m sure he’ll be the first hoping I make a mistake today, which is fair enough as he loves Hearts. I haven’t spoken to him for a while, I’ll leave that to next week when, hopefully, I have the bragging rights.”
While McPake has emerged as a key figure in the heart of Hibs’ defence, immediately handed the captain’s armband by boss Pat Fenlon while no less than Pat Stanton has identified him as a stabilising influence, the player himself insists the Easter Road side are no longer the soft touch they might have been regarded as by Hearts who won all three SPL derbies this season.
He said: “It is a great honour for a man like Pat Stanton to be talking about me and saying nice things. I can only thank him for that. But it is not just me who has come in – all the loan players have stabilised the team in different ways,
“Big Garry [O’Connor] is also back fit. When we first came in he was not really available. He’s an international striker and a big game player. It is not just me, there are lots of other changes which have happened.
“Maybe at the start of the season, when things weren’t going our way, we gave up a bit and we were soft. People might argue and other players could take offence, but that’s my opinion from the games I’ve seen. That doesn’t happen now. I think we are a lot more mentally strong, tougher to beat and tougher to break down.
“When we go a goal down we’ve shown we can come back and we’ve shown a fighting spirit.”
And McPake claimed things have moved on again at Easter Road since the last time the teams met. He said: “A couple of months ago when we went to Tynecastle Hearts probably won deservedly on the day, but it wasn’t as easy a game as they had had.
“We had chances and they scored their second in the 93rd minute but I think we are a different team from then as well. We’ve got players back in the team and we have players fitter. Hopefully it will be different this time. There’s no way the Hibs team of nine months ago will turn up.”
McPake also believes the relief which flooded through Easter Road as SPL safety was secured in the penultimate league game of the season can help Hibs break their Cup hoodoo.
He said: “We couldn’t really concentrate too much on the Cup. I still say staying in the SPL was more important than winning the Scottish Cup. I know some Hibs fans will disagree, but I won’t go back on it.
“I thoroughly meant what I said. Managing to stay in the SPL has let us focus completely on the Cup final.”