Hibs’ Steven Whittaker looks back on playing emergency centre-half and reveals position he could end career in
At 35-years-old, with almost 550 first-team appearances behind him in a career spanning more than 17 years, 31 Scotland caps, a healthy medal collection and a UEFA Cup final to boot, you’d imagine Steven Whittaker has been there and done it all.
But after being pressed into service as an emergency centre-half against Celtic, the Hibs player insisted there’s plenty of life left in an old dog who’s happy to learn new tricks.
In fact, he revealed, that if he decides to prolong his playing days even further, central defence might just be the position for him.
Adam Jackson’s head knock saw Whittaker partner Paul Hanlon for an hour, charged with blunting a Celtic attack, led by £9million Frenchman Odsonne Edouard, which had plundered 21 goals in their previous six league matches and had, only minutes earlier, had cancelled out Hibs’ early opener.
They did so, becoming the first team to take a point from Neil Lennon’s side in a season in which they are chasing a ninth successive title and, claimed Whittaker, he actually enjoyed the experience even if, at times, the Hibs rearguard creaked and had to enjoy a slice or two of luck, not least a couple of Celtic penalty claims.
Unfamiliar as his role might have been at the weekend, Whittaker revealed it wasn’t entirely alien to him – making his Scotland debut in that position after Gary Caldwell had been sent off against Norway in a World Cup qualifying match in Oslo ten years ago.
“We were 4-0 down and I played there for about ten minutes,” he recalled. “Obviously you’d have wanted it to be a bit more flattering, but you have to make your debut at some point. I’ve actually played there a couple of times but not consistently, just filling in like I did on Saturday.”
With Scotland Under-21 centre back Ryan Porteous suspended, Whittaker was the only defender on Hibs bench and when he saw Jackson being led from the pitch, clearly groggy following head clash with Edouard, he knew what was in store.
He said: “I knew I’d be going on and as soon as I did I said to Paul to keep me right, to keep talking to me because he’s played there his whole career. I was caught out a couple of times, but thankfully it didn’t come to anything.
“I enjoyed it. I think against Celtic the tendency is to drop and be a bit more in shape. I had a lot of protection, no getting away from that, the boys did well and dug in. If someone skipped by someone there was someone there to pick up the pieces. I was just glad I could slot in there and keep going the job Jacko had started.”
Now Whittaker believes there is mileage in considering a move to central defence in the longer term.
“I’m still learning at 35,” he said. “I’m known more as a full-back but perhaps that’s somewhere I have to learn a little bit more about because if I want to keep in the game a little bit longer that’s probably the position.
“I can go back on the videos and the clips, learn from that and if it’s something I’m looking to go on to do, that game will stand me in good stead.”
Whittaker admitted Hibs had found themselves in a strange situation, apparently awash with central defenders a few weeks ago, only to lose the experienced Darren McGregor to a long-term abdominal injury, Porteous to suspension after his red card a few days earlier at Rugby Park and then Jackson’s head knock leaving them with stand-in captain Hanlon as their only recognised specialist in that area.
He said: “Ryan will come back in, he’s been fantastic since he’s come back from injury. I’m not too sure exactly what is wrong with Jacko but he looked pretty groggy. We’ve got Aberdeen on Saturday then the international break, so hopefully we’ll start to get a few players back.”