Hibs’ surge up the table under Paul Heckingbottom has been aided by the reunion of the club’s dependable “old guard” in the back four.
Darren McGregor, Paul Hanlon and David Gray all found their game time limited in the first half of the season for one reason or another, while even the ultra-robust Lewis Stevenson missed a few games through injury in the winter. Questions were being asked among sections of the support about whether these four hugely-popular Scottish Cup-winning defenders were still equipped to be considered first-picks at Easter Road.
Over the past couple of months, however, the stars have aligned perfectly for the long-serving quartet to return to prominence. With Efe Ambrose departing for Derby County and teenage defender Ryan Porteous succumbing to a season-ending knee injury, the way was paved for the fit-again veterans to start reasserting themselves together in the starting line-up under Heckingbottom. They have duly capitalised, with Gray, 30, Stevenson 31, and Hanlon, 29, starting all seven matches since the Yorkshireman took charge and 33-year-old McGregor missing only the recent 2-0 victory over Motherwell through suspension after being sent off at the end of the 1-1 draw with Rangers.
“The old guard with a combined age of 250 are still doing a job!” joked McGregor as he reflected on their contribution to Hibs’ impressive return of 16 points from their last six league matches. “If you go through the four of us, we’re all really good professionals in our own right – everybody will say that. Every one of us loves the club and we play for the badge. Paul and Lewy have been unbelievable servants to the club and obviously you’ve got Dave Gray, the cup-winning captain. But, as soon as you hit a bad run of form, a lot of questions are asked of you. It’s a case of us knowing our worth to the team and striving to keep the levels of consistency as high as we can because we know there’s people waiting in the wings to take that jersey.”
Hanlon and Stevenson have both been with Hibs for over a decade while skipper Gray is in his fifth year at the club and McGregor is approaching the end of his fourth. The latter duo are both out of contract at the end of the season, but it is anticipated that both will be retained beyond the summer. McGregor believes all four of these senior players still have plenty to offer the club and is hopeful they can continue providing a solid base for the team.
“I’d like it if we could stay together as long as possible because we’ve built up a really good rapport,” said McGregor. “I consider those guys really good friends now. I’ve known them for long enough and they’re all cracking guys, hard-working and really down to earth. But we don’t want any sympathy or sentiment if we’re not playing well. We still want to work hard, earn our place in the team and know that we’re still contributing.”
As a man who will be 34 early next season, McGregor is well aware that some observers will view him as a player in danger of losing his sharpness as he nears the end of his career. The defender is currently in supreme form, however, and has re-established himself as one of the main men in the Hibs team after losing his regular status for a few months earlier in the season. He is confident that his ongoing dedication to looking after his body will serve him well as he bids to prolong his career deep into his 30s.
“A lot’s obviously made of your age, the older you get,” said McGregor. “I’ve seen it when I was younger and guys are getting older and questions are asked of them. That’s understandable because you always want your best eleven on the park. If I still feel I can contribute I’ll do my utmost on and off the field. A lot of people just see you on a Saturday – they don’t see the work you’re putting in during the week and the way you look after your body in terms of your diet and other things that can maximise your potential. I’ve been a massive advocate of that my whole career and I’ll continue to do that. If I feel fit enough to help the guys out on a Saturday, I’ll continue to do it as long as I can.”
McGregor has helped Hibs climb from eighth place back into the top six under Heckingbottom over the past couple of months. While encouraged by the way things are going, he is wary (perhaps understandably given the speed of the team’s slide down the table earlier in the season) of making any bold pronouncements about what his resurgent team can do in the closing weeks of this campaign.
“We’re definitely on a decent run but I never get too far ahead of myself because you always know you’re only one bad result away from being seen as a poor team again,” he said. “You can go into things in detail, look at the form table and the results since the gaffer’s come in, and see the total transformation that there’s been. But football has a funny way of kicking you in the teeth if you get carried away so we need to just keep focusing on one game at a time and keep working hard to keep it going. Probably the lowest point of the season was away to Motherwell just before Lenny departed (in January). We were in eighth position then and it wasn’t looking to rosey.
“The benchmark was set last season and we wanted to meet that but we were falling majorly short up until the new manager came in. Over the previous three years, since I’ve been here, we’ve always achieved success, whether it be winning the cup, winning the Championship, or qualifying for Europe. They’re the standards we set ourselves. The main thing at the moment is that we need to make sure we’re in the top six, and once we’re over the line with that, we can start reassessing our targets.”
Hibs can seal their top-six place this evening if they beat Kilmarnock at Easter Road. The last time the two sides met, at Rugby Park four months ago, the Edinburgh side slipped to eighth in the table after crashing to a grim 3-0 defeat in a match in which the floodlights went out twice.
“That was definitely a low point of the season,” said McGregor, who was substituted at half-time in that match. “I think when you’re hoping for the lights to go off a third time so the game gets abandoned to bail you out, it says a lot about where we were. It was just one of those games where nothing seemed to go right for us. It was one you want to forget.”