Despite being a lifelong Hibs from Leith, Darren McGregor has certainly not taken the conventional route into the Easter Road first team.
While boyhood Hibs fans of a similar age to him, such as Kevin Thomson and Derek Riordan, were playing in Tony Mowbray’s highly-regarded team a decade ago after coming through the club’s youth set-up, McGregor was struggling in the part-time ranks with Cowdenbeath and about to have his hopes of even sustaining a semi-professional football career dealt a major setback by one of his own Hibs idols – Mixu Paatelainen.
At the end of the 2005/06 season, the big Finn, who was in charge of the Blue Brazil at the time, told the then-20-year-old he was surplus to requirements. It didn’t come as a great shock to McGregor, who was happy to continue playing football with his friends in the Junior ranks while holding down a full-time job in the clothes shop, Xile, in Edinburgh’s Waverley Centre.
Yet, thanks in no small part to Danny Lennon’s faith in him, the defender was to enjoy a fairytale renaissance, which began with a return to Cowdenbeath in 2008, then took him to St Mirren two years later and then, remarkably, to Rangers last year. As if his belated blossoming wasn’t remarkable enough, he has now, at the age of 30, finally secured his dream move to Hibs after terminating his contract with the Ibrox club on Monday.
“Big Mixu was my idol until he got rid of me,” McGregor joked. “I was quite rash back then in my younger days and I got sent off twice in two games. Mixu said to me ‘I can’t play you Darren’. I said ‘I agree.’ That worked out well though as I went to Arniston Rangers and I got another chance. I’m thankful for the career that I have had considering I only turned professional at 24.”
Until five years ago, the closest McGregor looked likely to get to Hibs was selling clothes to their players. “Derek Riordan, Steven Whittaker, Scott Brown, I sold them all jeans in Xile,” he recalls. “When I left to sign for St Mirren they must have been doing double takes and saying that guy used to sell me jeans. It has been some story and hopefully it can help inspire other players as you are told when you are younger that if you are not playing for the likes of Rangers, Celtic, Hibs or Hearts by a certain age then you are not good enough. If other players use me as inspiration then fair play to them.”
McGregor is still trying to get his head round the fact he is a Hibs player after a whirlwind few days. As an out-of-favour Rangers player, he sat in the stand to watch Sunday’s victory over Hibs, with “no inkling” that a few days later he would be playing for the Easter Road side. After severing ties with the Ibrox club on Monday, he initially looked set for St Johnstone before Hibs stepped in.
“It was a quick turnaround from leaving Murray Park to getting the call from Hibs that this would be a possibility,” he said. “It’s been the team I supported all my days and dreamed of joining. I never thought it would happen when I was down Leith Links playing for Leith Athletic under-12s. It has been a long old road with plenty of ups and downs. It was hard leaving Rangers. It’s a good club with really good people. But as one door closes, another opens, and I’m at a club that my whole family supports, and I support. I’m looking forward to the season ahead.”
Despite his allegiances to Hibs, McGregor insists that no professional footballer would find it easy to leave a club the size of Rangers, especially not when they had finished as the club’s player of the year the previous season. “It was a difficult decision to leave and a lot of people might think I got a bit of a raw deal,” he said. “But to be fair to the gaffer [Mark Warburton], I commend his honesty because he could have had me on the periphery of things for weeks as a back-up in case someone got injured. However, he was really honest and transparent and said: ‘Darren, at your age you need games, you need to be playing - you can’t come chapping on my door in a few months asking why you’re not playing. I’m telling you now.’ Him and David [Weir] were great and told me I should go and play games. It was a great facility at Rangers, but you need to be playing. I’m lucky that I have landed on my feet at another great facility, with a great stadium to boot.”
Asked if Rangers would have let him leave if they knew he was heading to their Championship rivals, McGregor said: “That’s the big question, I’m not sure. But the fact of the matter is that the gaffer was happy to end it mutually and I was as well. I think there were a couple of teams interested but it was never really discussed in full. For me, it was just about playing and moving on.”
And moving on to a club that gave so many warm childhood memories. “I am lucky to have been given this opportunity to play for the club that I have supported all my life,” he said. “As a boy, I would get along to the games and watch them during the [Franck] Sauzee and [Russell] Latapy years. I remember them fondly.
“If Hibs had have come up at any stage in my career I would have signed for them and been inclined to come to them anyway. I appreciate it more now, though, that I am older and after everything I’ve been through to get here. My whole family are Hibs fans and so are my friends and I am from Leith which is a Hibs stronghold. When I found out Hibs were interested it was the only choice.”