Exclusive: ‘Ability isn’t enough’ - Hibs great on next generation of talents

Scottish Cup winner McGregor on nurturing new stars
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They can all play football. Even the least of them was probably the best player at school, the top performer in their age group, a prospect boasting serious promise. Becoming one of the tiny number of talents who turn that potential into a professional career? That’s about more than ability.

And that’s where Darren McGregor comes into the lives of the Hibs youngsters looking to follow in the footsteps of so many academy prospects down the years. At a club responsible for developing – among many others - Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Fletcher, Steven Whittaker, Josh Doig, Ryan Porteous and, more recently, youngest ever first team debutant Rory Whittaker, making that last step from youth to senior football should be a realistic ambition.

Scott Brown in his Hibs daysScott Brown in his Hibs days
Scott Brown in his Hibs days
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Scottish Cup winner McGregor, now under-18s coach at East Mains, knows his players have the ability. His job is to develop the intangible skills that can make all the difference in a first-team environment.

“From my perspective, all of these younger lads have been at academies for the past ten years,” said the former centre-half. “All of them are technically competent, all of them can control a ball and pass it. Because that’s what they’ve been doing, three nights a week, for the past five, six, seven, eight years.

“For me, it’s about developing mental robustness. How they deal with obstacles, challenges, adversity – how they deal with strong opinions. All of that defines whether you will be a footballer. Because I’ve got 18 lads who can all play football. They should be able to play football because they’ve been coached by A Licence coaches for the last 10 years.

“The final part is the mental aspect. When they train or play with the first team and expectations are sky high, if you’ve not instilled that mental robustness in them, taught them how to cope after a bad game or a poor performance, it can be tough.

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“We had a young lad sent off at the weekend. How does he cope with that? I can let them know that I’ve been through what they’re going to go through in the next three or four years.

“That can be career-ending injuries, getting released at a young age and bouncing back to play professional football, getting sent off in important games – European games, even. I can give them perspective and say: ‘Listen, it’s not the end of the world. It’s how you learn from it.’

Ryan Porteous playing for ScotlandRyan Porteous playing for Scotland
Ryan Porteous playing for Scotland

“You can let it consume you and destroy you, go and play junior football because you can’t take the pressure. Or you suck it up and realise that everybody, even the best players in the world, makes mistakes. And you’ll continue making mistakes.

“It’s about processing that while still performing. That’s why Rory Whittaker has jumped up and done really well, because he’s a confident lad and, if he makes a mistake, he gets on with it. Transitioning from academy football to the first team, that’s the biggest thing, the mental side of it, the ability to persevere.

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“I’ve been there as a youngster, thinking that one mistake will mean your world is going to end. It’s the ones who keep pushing forward who are ultimately successful.”

Having cut his teeth in an assistant’s role last season, an experience he calls “a great internship”, McGregor is loving life in charge of a team, saying: “They’re now my responsibility - as opposed to me just being a nodding head in the background.”

David Gray’s Testimonial sees a Hibs XI take on a Manchester Utd XI on Sunday 15th October at Easter Rd with a 2pm kick off. Tickets & limited Hospitality packages are available athttps://www.eticketing.co.uk/hibernianfc/Events

Working under academy director Gareth Evans, McGregor’s playing experience is something Hibs wanted to utilise. Having promoted David Gray to the first team coaching set-up, and with longer-term plans for Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson to stay part of the club when they call time on their playing careers, the Edinburgh club have a clear policy of retaining guys with vital knowledge.

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“You can definitely say that, from a Hibs perspective, they could definitely bring in more experienced coaches straight off the bat,” said McGregor. “When Lewis and Paul do transition, they’ll need on-field experience. Hibs could get that easily.

“But that coach wouldn’t have what Lewis and Paul have. He wouldn’t have almost a thousand games for Hibs, between the two of them – and doesn’t have the blueprint of how to make it and be successful at Hibs. They’re living legends. And they’re here in the building. All the younger guys need to do is speak to them.”

McGregor will be one of a whole team of Hibs old-timers looking to roll back the years in Gray’s testimonial on Sunday, the former stopper insisting: “I’ll never turn down an opportunity to play at Easter Road.

“I’ve kept myself relatively fit, so I’d like to think I’ll do OK. But you never know. We’ll all be looking at each other to see who is carrying a bit of timber!

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“That’s the temptation when you move into coaching. After training you just open that wee biscuit drawer in the office. Actually, we don’t have one of those drawers in our bit yet. I think Davie’s got one full of tea cakes and rocky roads …”

David Gray’s Testimonial sees a Hibs XI take on a Manchester Utd XI on Sunday 15th October at Easter Road with a 2pm kick off. Tickets & limited Hospitality packages are available at https://www.eticketing.co.uk/hibernianfc/Events