Darren McGregor has revealed how he was given only two hours notice that he was being pitched back into action after being sidelined for almost three months by injury.
And, he admitted, he couldn’t have wished for a tougher return than facing Celtic as they produced what boss Brendan Rodgers described as probably their most impressive performance of the season.
Rodgers’ claim was reflected in the final scoreline, a 4-2 victory which ended Hibs’ run of four successive wins. It also moved the Easter Road side from second to sixth place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, although only five points separate the top six teams.
However, while hailing his own players, Rodgers also praised Neil Lennon’s side for the part they played in “a fantastic game of football” in which Hibs recovered from a dreadful start to trade blows with Celtic throughout a pulsating second half.
While agreeing he and his team-mates could take a number of positives from the match, McGregor, restored to the side for his “strength and experience” in central defence with youngster Ryan Porteous nursing a knock, conceded they had contributed to their own downfall.
“It’s a tough ask when Celtic are firing on all cylinders, but we probably helped them with some of the decisions we made. It’s a difficult place and there’s a reason why they’ve only lost once there in a couple of years.
“Celtic were very good, they were difficult to keep on top of and I think in the first 45 minutes we showed them too much respect, didn’t get tight, weren’t aggressive enough and paid the price.”
McGregor admitted he feared the worst when Tom Rogic and Olivier Ntcham put Celtic two up within 20 minutes, the Hoops having already struck the woodwork twice as Hibs, who began with a back three, struggled to keep themselves in the match.
“It’s only human nature to think like that,” insisted McGregor. “Of course you worry that it might be one of those days when you go two goals down. It left us chasing the game. Celtic are a hard team to beat from 0-0 never mind 2-0 down so we made it hard for ourselves.”
Lennon’s players looked far more comfortable after he decided to switch to a back four and a diamond set-up in midfield, Martin Boyle forcing Craig Gordon into a stunning save as the Celtic goalkeeper got down to get a strong left hand on his netbound header just before half-time.
Florian Kamberi hauled Hibs back into the match with a superb strike only for Odsonne Edouard to restore Celtic’s two-goal cushion, an advantage which was again trimmed as Boyle claimed a second for Hibs. Edouard, though, sealed the points for Celtic three minutes from time, leaving Hibs to reflect on what might have been but for that slow start.
McGregor said: “I know they scored four and potentially it could have been more, but I think in the second half we acquitted ourselves pretty well and could have made it a tighter game, although you could argue they might have stretched it a bit with the chances they also had.
“Celtic are a good side but, having said that, in patches we matched them and scored two fabulous goals, so we can take a crumb of comfort from that. But at places like Celtic Park you have to start well because you can’t afford to be two goals down after 19 minutes.”
McGregor had slept well following his first 90 minutes since limping off with a knee problem in the second leg of Hibs’ Europa League tie against Greek outfit Asteris Tripolis on August 2, the problem seeing him miss 12 matches. The 33-year-old, who suffered two cruciate ligament injuries in quick succession while playing for St Mirren, said: “It was some game to come back to after so long out.
“The gaffer always tends to name his team on the day although I’d had an inkling during training through the week. He only told us at 1pm. I think it’s good because it keeps everyone on their toes.
“I always prepare to play so I was ready. There are no excuses on my part. I train with the guys, I work in the gym myself so I am always prepared. Whether it’s Celtic away or St Mirren at home you have to be ready – and I was.”
McGregor revealed he hadn’t enjoyed even a minute of game time before his recall, saying: “The reserve league does serve a purpose but it can never replicate Celtic away so you just have to prepare mentally, to remember you have been there and done it before and that gives you the mental stimulus to come in and play.”
Having listened to all the background chatter of title challenges McGregor conceded some may judge Hibs defeat in that context, although he insisted he and his team-mates have never indulged themselves in such talk, the season now only nine games old and less than a quarter of the way through.
He said: “I think the gaffer hit the nail on the head saying that you have to give it many, many more games and then, if you are still in and around it you can maybe start chatting about that.
“We are taking it one game at a time. We know we should be in and around the top four, that’s what we are aiming for and anything more is a bonus.
“You see the money Celtic pay, their wage budget and that of Rangers that make them difficult games to win.
“In years gone by we’ve done well against them so it’s not a case of doing yourself down because sometimes when they play really well and are on their home patch they can be quite a formidable force.”
Hibs now have another ten day break before facing Capital rivals and league leaders Hearts, allowing for experienced players such as skipper David Gray and centre half Paul Hanlon, who both missed the trip to Glasgow through injury, to declare themselves fit.