Darren McGregor or Nathan Wood: Who should step up for Hibs with Ryan Porteous suspended?
When Hibs communicated that their appeal against the red card shown to Ryan Porteous in the 2-1 defeat by Rangers at Ibrox earlier this month, it presented the Easter Road side with a problem.
With the 22-year-old suspended for two matches, Jack Ross will need to shuffle his backline for Saturday’s visit of Dundee United and the following weekend’s trip to Aberdeen.
While it is still relatively early in the season, three points are always the aim and it would not be unthinkable that Hibs could take six points from the two fixtures.
Despite his dismissal against the Gers, Porteous has played a key role in Hibs’ early-season form this term and has cut out the errors that blotted his copybook during the last campaign.
He will undoubtedly be a big miss in the defence but in Darren McGregor and Nathan Wood Hibs have two individuals capable of stepping into the sizeable gap left by Porteous.
The only question for Ross and his coaching staff is who gets the nod.
The case for McGregor
Darren McGregor. Hibs through and through. A Scottish Cup winner, a Scottish Championship winner, an experienced veteran centre-back who has seen it all. Now 36, he may be approaching the end of his career but the Leither has shown no signs of slowing down just yet.
Still around in a football era in which a lot is asked of defenders, McGregor is more the type to defend, then ask questions later. On Football Manager he would be classed as a “no-nonsense centre-back”, and even that term seems a little tame to describe his style of play.
When he was brought into the team last season following transfer interest in Porteous, McGregor simply slotted back in alongside Paul Hanlon as if he’d never been away.
His performances had the fans clamouring for him to start every game. Turmeric-powered to allow him to cram in two or three games a week despite his advancing years, McGregor stepped up time and again, even popping up with a vital goal against – who else? – Dundee United.
He also put in a stellar performance against Aberdeen at Pittodrie when Hibs secured third last term. He remains a vital part of the first-team squad and despite not playing every game, his influence and presence in the dressing room speaks for itself.
If there are any concerns about him filling in for Porteous they will likely concern his pace. Although not necessarily slow, there have been times – not often, granted – in the last 12 months when opposition forwards have ghosted past him with relative ease.
Starting McGregor would also leave Ross with just Lewis Stevenson as experienced defensive back-up on the bench and while there is little doubt about Wood’s calibre, if it was a choice between throwing on McGregor or the Middlesbrough loanee to protect a 1-0 lead at Pittodrie, for example, the coaching staff would probably opt for the former.
The case for Wood
Hibs fans are yet to see Nathan Wood in action in green and white, although he has been named in a number of matchday squads and looked close to coming on in the Premier Sports Cup quarter-final victory over Dundee United at Tannadice last month.
That he is highly-rated by the staff at the Riverside and serves as captain of the England Under-20 side hints at his ability. Hanlon has already spoken highly of the 19-year-old’s efforts in training, pointing out that the Englishman has forced the first-choice centre-backs to step up their own game to avoid losing their place.
With Porteous sidelined for two matches, Ross might feel the time has come to introduce Wood to Scottish football. Playing alongside Hanlon with Paul McGinn on his other side to help him through matches should see him take to the Scottish game like a duck to water.
Handing him a start against the Tannadice side on Saturday would let him make his debut in front of a supportive home crowd against a team who he has seen in action.
Wood was sent up the road by Boro chiefs to get game time and, in the words of Neil Warnock, “to play men’s football”. Saturday would be a great opportunity for Wood to show what he has in his locker – to the Easter Road fans, the Hibs coaching staff, and his mentors at Middlesbrough who will no doubt be watching closely.
How about both?
This isn’t advocating playing both McGregor and Wood in the same defence but rather starting Wood against United and potentially bringing McGregor in for the trip to face the Dons.
If Wood plays a blinder against the Taysiders then he gives Ross a decision to make. It could be that he starts against Aberdeen with McGregor able to come on if needs be, as happened with Josh Doig and Stevenson at times last season when the young full-back was still finding his feet.
Both McGregor and Wood are happy playing in a back three or back four, but neither centre-half presents a gamble nor a foolproof option. Ultimately the management team has to make a call on which player is best suited for the tactical approach to both games.
It might be McGregor for both, or Wood getting the nod, or they both might play a game each. They could also feasibly both play part of the two fixtures depending on a variety of factors.
If McGregor gets the nod he has the chance to remind everyone of his skillset – not that he really needs to – and if Wood is chosen then he will have the opportunity to show why he was brought in and why he is rated so highly by those at his parent club and his loan side.
For Hibs fans, all they want to see in both games is three points and whether McGregor or Wood, whoever fills in for Porteous is more than capable of helping contribute to six points out of six.