Darren McGregor found himself being branded a “big softy”as he battled back from a knee operation, his former Rangers boss Ally McCoist boasting he was back playing just ten days after similar surgery.
The Hibs defender took the ribbing from McCoist as they bumped into each other following the derby win over Hearts but, he insisted today, his own recovery was bang on schedule, a return to action delayed by the Capital club being on a winning run.
McGregor finally pulled on a Hibs shirt for the first time in three months as Lennon’s side hauled themselves to within a point of second place with a narrow win over Partick Thistle on Saturday, the 32-year-old having torn a cartilage while playing against Dundee at Dens Park at the end of August.
“You can speak to different people and cartilage damage can vary,” he said. “After the Hearts match I was walking back to my car and bumped into Ally and Alan Stubbs who had been doing television commentary.
“It was just a quick wee chat but he gave me a bit of a hard time because he got back from a cartilage operation in ten days which is incredible. He was calling me a big softy because I was at eight weeks.
“It just shows you the varying degrees, it was just a bit longer, the rehab and everything was done well and I felt really good. But when I was getting itchy feet wanting back in, the team was on a four game winning streak and had only conceded one goal.
“I understood but I went in to speak to the gaffer and said ‘listen, mentally I’m ready to go. I said I just wanted to go back in on my own merits, just to let him know I was ready and wanted to be put into a game but also that I understood it was difficult to be thrust into a game.
“I just wanted him to trust me and I am glad he did because young Ryan Porteous can feel a bit aggrieved because he has been tremendous.”
McGregor, who suffered two anterior cruciate ligament injuries while with St Mirren, putting him out for the best part of two years, was thrown in at Firhill without having even played a minute of football with the club’s Under-20s and admitted he was delighted with how the afternoon had gone.
He said: “You don’t realise how much you miss it until you are actually out. It was great to be put back in. The team had been picking itself for a while with good results so I bided my time and was fortunate enough to be given the nod. And what more can you ask, first game back, three points and a clean sheet.”
Now, conceded McGregor, he faces far tougher challenges with Hibs playing Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen in the space of just six days, kicking off with a visit from the Hoops, unbeaten in an astonishing 67 domestic matches, on Sunday.
“Some people have said I’ve judged it perfectly,” revealed McGregor, “that I am just back for the big games. But that’s what we all play football for, to judge yourself against the best and Celtic are the measuring stick.
“It’s some feat, but records are there to be beaten although I believe in the games we’ve played them this season we’ve given them a bit of bother.”
McGregor sat out both of those matches, a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park and then a 4-2 defeat in the semi-final of the Betfred Cup but, he admitted, he and his team-mates face a daunting task, while insisting there is belief within the dressing-room that they can be the side that finally does it.
However, arguing winning the Scottish Cup and returning Hibs to the Premiership would rate more highly on a personal level, he said: “Ending Celtic’s run would be an achievement but the run will be remembered as opposed to ending it.
“It’s a tremendous effort not just in Scottish football but the world over because you have to beat what’s in front of you. There’s lots of factors that can spring up and make that difficult, so fair play to them, to go out all these times and never be beaten is a hell of an achievement.
“But it is there to be broken and every team that plays them hopes it will be them and we’ll be working hard to try to do it.
“I’m not sitting here predicting a win, that would be naïve. Brendan Rodgers has done a phenomenal job gathering the amount of players, the quality players he has and building that ethos as well. There’s no easy games so to have that feat and to have had it for a year-and-a-half is just incredible.
“I’m not naïve enough to think that because we are on a decent run and we’ve caused them problems that we are going out to win. But we need to go into the game believing we can win, that if we have a good day and they have an off day, we could potentially beat them.
“If they are at the top of their game anyone in Scotland would be hard pressed to beat them even if they themselves were playing well.”
Having said that, McGregor believes Hibs find themselves in a “win, win” situation because Celtic will be expected to extend their record yet again.
He said: “You get that little bit of an edge because you know it’s a win, win scenario.”
As always, acknowledged McGregor, the first objective will be to blunt Celtic’s early attacks, a lesson he learned from his first encounter with the Hoops at Parkhead during his St Mirren days. He said: “You are always told to keep it tight early and try to make the tide turn against them. It didn’t happen, the party started early and they won 4-0.”