As centre-backs go, Darren McGregor and Efe Ambrose are polar opposites.
McGregor, by his own admission, is a no-nonsense defender who focuses on the basics and knows his limitations enough not to keep the ball in his possession any longer than he has to. The 33-year-old’s preferred policy is to win the ball by hook or by crook, then move it on to a more composed team-mate to spark attacks. Ambrose, by contrast, loves to augment his defending by stepping out and surging forward with the ball, a trait which has been key to helping Hibs play on the front foot under Neil Lennon.
McGregor acknowledges that his defensive sidekick’s risky penchant for carrying the ball out of defence often causes collective panic among Hibs players, supporters and management, and occasionally leads to the opposition being gifted chances out of nothing. However, he believes the overall quality the Nigerian brings to the team is invaluable and is delighted, from a Hibs perspective, that a possible transfer-deadline day move to Turkey failed to materialise for the 29-year-old former Celtic defender last week.
“It was really important to keep Efe,” said McGregor. “Like everybody else, I only found out there was a potential for him to leave when I read it in the media on Friday but I’m delighted that a player of his calibre stayed with us because he’s an internationalist with great experience. You know what you’re going to get with Efe – sometimes he can leave you on tenterhooks but he’s a massive plus for us with his composure on the ball and his experience. As a defender he can play and he can get you out of tight situations.
“Some people just focus on his mistakes but he’s a very good player. I never really get caught out like that because I always pass the ball before I get to that situation. He’s sometimes the architect of his own mistakes because he constantly wants to go out with the ball and run and break the lines, but it’s an asset to have a defender who’s willing to get on the ball and take risks. Sometimes he can take risks in the wrong areas and he pays for it but I’d definitely rather have him than not have him. He’s a quality defender as well. He’s athletic, he’s good in the air and he’s powerful so he ticks all the boxes. You have to keep players like that. We need all the experience and leadership we can get and he obviously adds to that.”
McGregor has been sidelined for the past month with a knee injury but has watched on with admiration as academy graduate Ryan Porteous has impressed in his absence. The 19-year-old is currently on Scotland Under-21 duty after starting nine of Hibs’ 11 competitive matches this season, and McGregor believes his young colleague is the complete package and is miles ahead of where he was when he was the same age, in his first spell at Cowdenbeath. “We’re really fortunate to have a young, up-and-coming player such as Ryan Porteous to come and step in for me,” said McGregor. “He’s acquitted himself magnificently since he came in which has made my job easier, albeit I don’t want him to be doing too well because I won’t get back in!
“Seriously, he deserves his spot – he is lightyears in front of where I was at his age and he will progress and get even better. I’m delighted for him. He has got everything – he’s good on the ball, aggressive, wins his aerial challenges and he talks, which is very uncommon in someone of his age on the pitch. He’s very humble, too, in and around the place, very respectful and he works hard. I’ve no doubt he’ll be a star the older he gets. In Scotland you see defenders who are good on the ball but lack aggression or others – like me – who are aggressive but lack a bit of ability, but when you’ve got both together you’re on to a winner and Ryan boasts both those assets. He has been capped with Scotland at his age levels and captained the under-19s and that shows he has a bit about him.”
McGregor sees Porteous as part of a batch of highly-rated young Scottish centre-backs who can fill a problem position for the national team. “He’s one for the future – one for just now, in fact,” said McGregor. “Ryan, Scott McKenna, Jack Hendry, John Souttar – I like them all, I think they are all a great size, they have stature, they’re aggressive and good on the ball.
“They’re your modern-day centre-half whereas I’m a bit of a throwback who just likes to head it and kick people. I think there’s a place for both, I would always say be aggressive and competitive and give it to someone who can play better than you, in my case the other ten guys! But if you can play it in the right situation, great. We (Scotland) are lucky now. In years gone by we have been screaming out for defenders, now we have three or four coming through at the same time.”