Darren McGregor relishing Hibs coaching role but hasn't given up on first-team hopes
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“Didn’t think I’d be speaking to you lot again so soon,” he laughs. The veteran defender was on media duties after the 4-0 win against St Johnstone on the last day of the 2021/22 campaign.
Since then he has been coaching the Easter Road side’s under-18s, playing with and mentoring the club’s development squad and on Sunday, played 45 minutes and kept a clean sheet against a Norwich City frontline that at various times included Finnish striker Teemu Pukki, Republic of Ireland internationalist Adam Idah, and experienced English forward Jordan Hugill.
No sweat for McGregor, who has experienced it all before and is now intent on passing on his expertise to some of the younger members of the Hibs family.
"I didn't have much expectation of playing at the start of the season, I'd semi-transitioned over to the development squad and I'm loving it,” he says.
"Steve Kean and Gareth Evans have looked after me superbly, I feel like I'm learning and I had my coach's head on, but to get the chance to come back and help the younger guys through a first-team game… I'm absolutely over the moon.
"I thought the McGregor 24 shirt wouldn't be seen again so to win the game, keep a clean sheet, and have a good performance with the younger guys who I'm mentoring was great."
He turns 37 next month but the centre-half has a new lease of life helping to bring on the next generation at Hibs. Opposition players from the under-23 teams travelling north for matches may be surprised to see such an experienced player lining up alongside fresh-faced teenagers but it is not unusual for development sides to include a seasoned professional as a player-coach.
"I've been playing with Jacob [Blaney] and Oscar [MacIntyre] for the last few weeks so they felt more like team-mates than the others. We've grown quite a strong bond and I can't ask for much more from these guys in terms of their willingness to learn, and go out and perform against opposition where some of their players will be expected to be helping Norwich challenge for promotion to the Premier League so it was a really good learning experience.
"To keep a clean sheet, and even although they had the bulk of possession, I thought we had the better chances in the second half so that's testament to their application and character.”
As well as his player-coach role with the development squad, McGregor is also working with the club’s under-18s – but from the touchline, rather than as an overage player. The youngsters have won three games out of three in pre-season and their new coach is excited for the future.
“The 18s have a fabulous attitude and application and I look forward to everyone potentially seeing them in the near future,” he adds.
Life has certainly changed for McGregor on a day-to-day basis, as he explains.
"It's longer hours. Mondays and Fridays I go home and come back and help coach the 18s but I'm learning so it doesn't seem like extra work.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a while. I've been given a chance and couldn't ask for better mentors in Gareth and Steve. They've been amazing with me.
"It's been fun. I'm only four or five weeks into my journey so if I can help in a mentoring capacity in the first team, or the development squad, or the 18s, I've said it many times before but I love the club and want to help it move forward."
With so many new, younger faces at Easter Road, manager Lee Johnson is leaning on the likes of McGregor and the other elder statesmen like David Marshall, Aiden McGeady and of course Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson.
"The gaffer wants me in and around the squad because he's conscious that there are a lot of new guys coming in. It takes the younger ones time to settle.
"If I can help knit them together, show them the standard, and set the benchmark through the work I do, the way I speak, or act, I think that's probably where the gaffer is coming from."
He might not have played in any of the Premier Sports Cup games but McGregor’s face clouds over when asked about the club’s ignominious exit from the competition.
"There's no beating around the bush, going out of the League Cup is disappointing,” he agrees.
"We’re not at full strength but from a biased Hibs perspective, should we beat Morton and Falkirk? Probably, but we have no given right.
"The work-rate has to be right. You can’t play like that against Norwich and beat them in a glamour friendly.
"It has to be against St Johnstone, Morton at home, Falkirk away. If you drop your standards, turn up at half-mast thinking you can take points, you’re in serious trouble.
"Norwich is the benchmark moving forward and will stand us in good stead for the St Johnstone game, which will be very tough."
McGregor isn’t expecting to be involved on Saturday, but speaks highly of two players who might, in Rocky Bushiri and Kyle McClelland.
"They are still young and will admit they have a lot to learn. I think they should be given a bit of leeway.
"At the same time, fans want them to come in and be seven or eight out of 10 every week. They are conscious of that and are working hard to reach that standard.
"Paul will be back, we've got Rocky and Kyle. I'm not sure if Hibs are looking for another centre-back.
"I’ll still be involved in a development capacity so I am still getting my Hibs buzz there. But if I can be involved with the first team I would be over the moon.
"We'll wait and see."