Darren McGregor: League Cup group games have made Hibs match-sharp

Darren McGregor has been impressed with Hibs' new signings and also the emergence of youngsters like Fraser Murray
Darren McGregor has been impressed with Hibs' new signings and also the emergence of youngsters like Fraser Murray
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The group stage of the Betfred Cup may have been something of a “phoney war”, most managers using the early start required to use the matches as part of their pre-season preparations.

But as far as Hibs defender Darren McGregor is concerned, they’ve worked a treat for the Easter Road outfit, boss Neil Lennon able to rotate his squad across the four games to give the vast majority of players a decent amount of minutes on the pitch to help fine-tune their fitness.

The Capital club, though, also enjoyed no small measure of success, 13 goals scored and just one conceded as they topped Group D to earn themselves a last-16 encounter at home with League One Ayr United next week.

Lennon’s players also emerged unbeaten over 90 minutes, the only “bump in the road” being a penalty shoot-out defeat by Ross County in the only section which boasted two Premiership teams.

It was just the confidence-boosting exercise Lennon would have hoped for as Hibs prepare for a return to the top flight of Scottish football after a three year absence.

And it has, as McGregor insisted: “Set us up nicely for Partick Thistle”, their first match on Saturday before which the Championship flag will be unfurled.

Unfortunately for McGregor he and club captain David Gray will be suspended, each hit by a one-match ban carried over from last season after having picked up six yellow cards.

The pair will, though, be interested onlookers, an encounter with a team which finished sixth for the first time no doubt looked upon as a barometer of Hibs’ readiness for the months that lie ahead.

As a defender McGregor is naturally delighted with three clean sheets in four matches, pointing out that he was rested on the night his team-mates conceded their only goal in a 6-1 mauling of Arbroath.

However, he believes the goal threat which Lennon’s side carries – despite the loss of Jason Cummings, top scorer in each of the three previous seasons – has been the big bonus of the past fortnight.

The 31-year-old said: “I think last year we were labelled as a good defensive team without the goals, but so far we’ve done well.”

The fact they have is down to new signing Simon Murray claiming seven goals in those games against Montrose, Ross County, Arbroath and Alloa Athletic, the former Dundee United hitman answering those who questioned the wisdom of bringing him to Easter Road.

McGregor said: “Simon has come and been excellent. I think there was some pressure on him because he came from United and some fans think we need to be signing big-name players.

“But look at his record last season, he scored 18 goals in the Championship in a team that arguably didn’t create too many chances, so that shows his pedigree.

“His work ethic is second-to-none and with the quality we have in the team and the delivery into the box I think he’ll continue to get those tap-ins and headers across the box that he’s got so far.

“I think he’s shown he’ll be a big asset for us.”

Lennon has already added Lithuanian internationalist Deivydas Matulevicius to given a different dimension to his frontline, the 6ft 3in striker given a second-half run-out at the Indodrill Stadium, while the club’s pursuit of Republic of Ireland forward Anthony Stokes continues to rumble on.

Hibs hope to persuade Stokes to return for a third spell, the 29-year-old, of course, idolised for his two goals in the Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers and someone who enjoyed great success as a player during Lennon’s time as Celtic manager.

McGregor said: “Stokesy is a different kettle of fish. He’s done it at the highest level with Celtic. He’s been a bit disjointed career-wise over the last couple of years and needs that bit of stability which he’d definitely get here.

“I think even he would say he played his best football under the gaffer but that was a few years ago. It’s been made clear to him that the door is open.

“If it doesn’t happen we have Simon and big Davie who will take a couple of games to get up to speed but he looks like being another good addition. The gaffer will probably want a couple more in, but I think we are ready for Partick.”

Lennon may have made seven signings so far, another Lithuanian internationalist Vykintas Silvka the latest arrival, but homegrown talent is also being given a chance in the shape of Fraser Murray, Ryan Porteous and Oli Shaw.

The emergence of Murray has, McGregor revealed, reminded him of watching a younger John McGinn breaking through at St Mirren.

He said: “I remember John as a little skin-headed kid. The difference is the physique, John has always had those legs, he’s sturdy. But in terms of ability Fraser ticks all the boxes. He’s maybe not as developed as Ryan but he has the skills set, the footballing brain.”