Hibs’ Steven Whittaker wants ‘pinnacle’ of career with Scotland

Steven Whittaker
Steven Whittaker
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Steven Whittaker boasts a CV which would be the envy of most football players. A CIS Insurance Cup winner with Hibs a decade ago, the 33-year-old has added three Premiership titles, two Scottish Cups and three more League Cup medals to his haul.

Add in an appearance in the Europa League final, English Premier League action with Norwich City and 31 Scotland caps and you have to admit the Easter Road defender has enjoyed an impressive career.

Whittaker was denied by Craig Gordon's wonder save last weekend

Whittaker was denied by Craig Gordon's wonder save last weekend

But, he admitted, there’s one prize which has eluded him, playing for Scotland at the finals of a major championship. Now, he agrees, he has probably one last chance to achieve that goal as Gordon Strachan’s side bid to take the lifeline they have won themselves in their final two World Cup qualifying games against Slovakia and Slovenia.

Agreeing being part of a Scotland squad travelling to Russia next summer would be the “pinnacle” of his career, he said: “I’ve been around the national team for a long time and never managed to get to that stage and time is definitely running out. I’m not getting any younger.

“It’s something that’s kind of missing. Who knows if I will achieve it. I wouldn’t say it’s a regret, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do throughout my career, to play at the finals of a major tournament.

“Playing for my country on that level is something I’ve always wanted to do and hopefully this will be the one but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Whittaker was only 13 when Scotland last made an appearance on such stage, the World Cup finals in 1998 a time when qualifying for those occasions seemed almost a right for the national side.

“Those were great times for the country,” said Whittaker, “Great for the fans to be able to go and support the team. We are desperate to achieve that again and I am sure it is going to happen sooner rather than later with the group of boys we have.”

Having qualification for the finals still very much in their own hands is, Whittaker conceded, something of a bonus for Strachan’s squad following a disastrous start which saw them take just four points from their opening four games.

But that dramatic draw against Group F leaders England and subsequent wins over Lithuania and Malta have thrown the fight for a play-off place wide open, Slovakia a point better off than both the Scots and Slovenia.

Whittaker said: “It was not ideal, the results weren’t what we were looking for, but we still through we could make a go of it and we’ve managed to get a few positive results and now we have a bit of momentum behind us. We still have a hard task, but hopefully tomorrow night we can take three points [against Slovakia] and then see about the last game.

Slovenia face England at Wembley as the same time and, admitted Whittaker, “a little favour” from the Auld Enemy wouldn’t go amiss. He said: “I don’t know if there is an order of games to suit. Maybe the last game with the crowd behind you needing to win might be the ideal scenario, but we have to take it as it is, treat tomorrow as the most important game and get what is needed from that one first.”

Scotland will do so without skipper Scott Brown and his Celtic team-mate Stuart Armstrong after the pair pulled out of both games because of injury but while admitting they will be a loss, Whittaker insisted Strachan still has plenty of options at his disposal.

Brown was, of course, a team-mate of Whittaker at Easter Road, part of that “golden generation” which also included Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor but even then, he claimed, he could tell “Broony” was going to be something special.

He said: “It would have been hard to say back them that Scott would emerge as such an important figure. When he first came in he was a right winger with lots of energy and ability.

“You could see right away he was going to be something special. It’s credit to him, his game has changed, he’s the country’s captain thanks to his ability and determination to do well.

“We are going to miss him given his form for Scotland and Celtic over the past year, it’s been fantastic. We all now what his character is like, his leadership on the park so he has probably made a difference, dragging the team along.

“But it does give someone else the chance to step up. We have great depth in that area, guys who are champing at the bit to play. Scott will be a miss, as will Stuart, as they have been fantastic in the last couple of games, but we feel we have enough in the squad to cope.”

One who will be hoping he’s given the nod by Strachan will be Whittaker’s current Easter Road team-mate John McGinn, who did his chances no harm with a man-of-the-match performance against Celtic with two goals which almost ended the Hoops long unbeaten run.

Whittaker has no doubt the 22-year-old will cope with the occasion, agreeing there are similarities between Brown and McGinn. He said: “John has been fantastic for us. I’ve only been at the club a short period but he has been our best player. He has the lot for 
midfield, he is strong, he can drive, he can find a pass and he has goals in him. He has a great future and I am sure if he’s asked to play he’ll handle it.

“It’s hard to say how good someone is until you are in about him. I knew there was the hype about John with him having done well for a few seasons. He’s a big player for us, in the middle of the park he controls games but he does have the help of Marvin Bartley in there who has also been great for us.”

While the Scots will be hoping Craig Gordon has an untroubled night at Hampden, Whittaker was given a timely reminder of the goalkeeper’s ability, the former Hearts man pulling off a world-class save to prevent him scoring against Celtic.

Even having watched the incident again and again Whittaker admitted he still doesn’t know how Gordon made the stop. He said: “The ball came to me fast but I was only three yards out and I thought all I had to do was turn it goalwards, which I did. I thought I had scored and I still don’t know how I didn’t.

“Craig has come from nowhere, he had no right to get there. I spoke to him after the game but he didn’t even know it was me. All he said was that he had to try to do his best to get across to it, which he did.

“There could be a moment tomorrow night when he keeps our hopes alive. Everyone is important in their own right but when that last line is breached you have to rely on your goalkeeper and Craig has come up with the goods on numerous occasions.”