Upon scanning the list of Hibs players out of contract this summer, not including loanees, three names jump off the page: Darren McGregor, David Gray and Marvin Bartley.
All three have been mainstays of the club’s post-relegation renaissance and will forever be highly regarded by supporters. As things stand, any or all of this long-serving and dependable trio could now be in their final months at Hibs.
Several factors will come into play as their respective futures are decided in the weeks ahead.
If contracts were handed out on sentiment alone, all three of these popular figures would be offered deals for life on the basis of their commitment to the cause during what has been a purple patch in the club’s history, topped off with the hoodoo-busting Scottish Cup triumph. Nothing is permanent in football, however, as evidenced by the fact ten of the 14 revered players who featured for Alan Stubbs’ team against Rangers in the final on 21 May 2016 are no longer at Easter Road. Along with Gray and McGregor, only testimonial men Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson – contracted until 2022 and 2021 respectively – remain at the club from the side that reigned at Hampden almost three years ago. Bartley was an unused substitute along with Martin Boyle, who is under contract until 2021. These six men are the only survivors from Stubbs’ reign and can all be termed senior players, both on the basis of their length of service to the club and their influence in the dressing-room. It is highly unlikely the club hierarchy would be of a mind to allow half of its core group of long-serving players to drift away in one summer when continuity has generally served them well over the past few years.
Indeed, chief executive Leeann Dempster spoke only a few weeks ago, just days before Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment as head coach, about the value of the club’s old guard. “We talk about the great people at the club and that includes the players,” she said. “A lot of them have been with us in this journey since 2014. We rely heavily on them, not just on the pitch but off the pitch as well. Utterly fantastic professionals. Credit as human beings as much as anything and we’re really grateful that they are here.
“In my view some of these guys should never leave this football club and if I had anything to do with it, thankfully I do, I don’t want them to go. That’s not me necessarily commenting on the footballing perspective but life after football.”
Ultimately, a decision on the future of McGregor, Bartley and Gray as Hibs players is likely to come down to Heckingbottom’s early perception of them and whether he feels they each bring enough of his preferred qualities to the squad and are still equipped to contribute going forward given that they are all in their thirties. The early signs are certainly promising for Gray and McGregor in that regard as they have both started all four of his matches in charge so far, albeit in part due to a shortage of alternative options within a squad which has been left increasingly threadbare by a terrible run of injuries.
Indeed, Bartley has been restricted by injury to just two substitute appearances under the new head coach, while Gray and McGregor have both had their injury problems in recent seasons and in the first half of this one. By the time next season starts, captain Gray will be 31, midfield anchorman Bartley will be 33 and centre-back McGregor will turn 34 in August. It is logical to assume that, given their age and their recent fitness issues, none of these players can be relied upon to play week in, week out next season.
Factoring in that Stevenson, 31, and Hanlon, 29, have also endured recent injury problems and that Steven Whittaker and Mark Milligan – who both remain under contract – will be 35 and 34 by the time August is out, Hibs management are sure to be wary of the need to lower the age profile of the defensive department of the team, an area weakened by the recent departure of Efe Ambrose and injury to the burgeoning Ryan Porteous. Much will depend on whether Hibs feel their budget will allow them to retain any or all of this trio while also adding a smattering of younger, more dynamic players to the mix in order to freshen things up.
In basic football terms, all three of these experienced, hard-tackling Hibs warriors are still highly competent operators capable of doing a job for the team if they can keep themselves fit. McGregor, although not quite at the level of his first three seasons at the club, has still generally been performing well and has been Hibs’ best defender since they lost Ambrose and Porteous. Gray still appears to be feeling his way back into it after a three-month lay-off at the end of 2018, but he was in excellent form in the opening months of the campaign so, if he can keep himself injury-free and playing regularly, there is no obvious reason he shouldn’t be back at his aggressive goal-scoring best in the weeks and months ahead. Bartley has had a particularly frustrating campaign, unable to generate any momentum due to injuries, but he showed in the last Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle, four months ago, that he still has plenty to offer when fit enough to be thrust into battle.
Even if no longer able to play as regularly as they would like, Gray, McGregor and Bartley are all big characters in a close-knit dressing-room, low maintenance to manage and have proven that they have what is required to be part of a relatively successful Hibs squad.
Given their respective roles in helping the club reconnect with its supporters, allied to the leadership and will to win that they can help instil in others, this experienced and popular trio are unlikely to be readily discarded.