The last time James McPake watched Hibs in action as a Premiership team, he was a helpless bystander as a club with which he had developed a strong affinity slipped meekly towards the Championship.
It still rankles with the 33-year-old that he was unable to help prevent the Easter Road club suffering the ignominy of relegation. McPake was Hibs captain under Pat Fenlon and looked to be becoming part of the furniture at Easter Road. In a cruel turn of events, however, his last game for the club transpired to be a 1-0 League Cup defeat at home to administration-ravaged Hearts in which he was sent off. That match, in October 2013, also signalled the end of Fenlon’s reign, with Hibs sixth in the top flight.
Terry Butcher replaced the Irishman and oversaw an inexplicable nosedive from mid-table to second-bottom before they lost to Hamilton Accies in the play-off final in May 2014. McPake didn’t kick a single first-team ball during the Englishman’s ill-fated seven-month reign, largely due to injury. However, towards the end of the season he had forced his way back to a level of fitness that he felt would have allowed him to get back on the pitch and help add some steel and leadership to a team low on morale and dropping like a stone. Butcher disagreed.
Although he listed the deposed skipper on the bench for the last few games of the regulation season, McPake wasn’t deemed worthy of a place in the match-day squad for the two legs of the play-off against Accies. Despite playing no part in their relegation, McPake is still irked by the wretched manner in which his two-and-a-half years at Easter Road ended.
In his current guise as a Dundee player – albeit still working his way back from serious injury – the centre-back will be delighted to see Hibs rock up at Dens Park on Sunday as a Premiership side once again. Following three years of rebuilding in the second tier, McPake acknowledges they are now in a healthier state than during his time in Leith.
“I loved it at Hibs but I hated the way it ended,” he told the Evening News. “It still annoys me now to this day and it’ll continue to annoy me. My last year there was one of the worst of my career. Not being able to get back and play a part in trying to stop relegation was really hard. Just seeing the way the back end of that season went for everyone at the club, it was really disappointing.
“When you look back now, it maybe wasn’t such a bad thing that they went down because they rebuilt, won the Scottish Cup and now they’re back stronger than they’ve been in years. For me, the main thing that’s made them stronger is having Neil Lennon in there – he’s different class. People you speak to love working with him. He’s a good coach and he’s a winner. Their squad is also a lot better now. It helps that they’ve had a bit of continuity in terms of personnel. They’ve got players who have been there for two or three years now so then team is developing a solid backbone. They’ve got a proper squad from back to front and they’re a great addition to the league. It’s great that they’re back because they’re a fantastic club with a lot of good people.”
When he first joined Hibs on loan from Coventry City in January 2012, McPake was an instrumental figure in helping the recently-appointed Fenlon lead them to Premiership safety. After captaining the side in the ill-fated 5-1 Scottish Cup final defeat by Hearts, McPake returned the following season on a permanent basis and helped Hibs top the table in November, before a late-season slump saw them slip into the bottom six once more.
Although he enjoyed his time at Hibs on the whole, he recognises that they are now better equipped to reclaim a place in the top six for the first time since the 2009/10 season. “I’ll take the positives from my time at Hibs rather than worry about the bad things that happened,” he said. “It was a fantastic club with a great support and a lot of good people, some of whom are still there now. When I first went in there on loan, I was going in on the back of a bad injury at Coventry so I was just delighted to get playing regularly again. For all that it ended negatively for me, I’m sure all the Hibs fans would look back and wouldn’t change a thing about what happened because they’ve come back so strongly.
“It’s hard to say exactly where they are at this stage in relation to everyone else because the league’s strong just now. Aberdeen are strong, Rangers have strengthened and there are a lot of other good teams in the league, but certainly with the squad they’ve got, they should be looking to get back into the top six.”
Hibs were dealt a setback on Saturday when Hamilton Accies won 3-1 at Easter Road and ended their perfect start to the Premiership campaign. McPake is anticipating a strong response from his old side at Dens Park on Sunday. “I’d expect a backlash from Hibs,” he said. “I was surprised by their result on Saturday. From the outside looking in, I think everyone expected Hibs to beat Hamilton at Easter Road. I’ve seen Neil Lennon’s interview from the weekend and he was clearly disappointed. He had a go at them a few times last season and they generally responded positively. He’ll have them right up for it and they’ll come with a massive support so it’ll be a hard game for us.”
Dundee go into match as the league’s bottom side after three defeats but the consensus is that Neil McCann’s side should have had a lot more to show for their efforts thus far. “In the three games we’ve played, the results haven’t been good but the performances have,” said McPake. “I think everybody who’s seen the games can see the chances we’ve created but we’re not putting the ball in the net so hopefully we can turn that around and start picking up points. It would be a lot more worrying if we weren’t playing well and creating chances.
“In the Ross County game, you’d say we could have lost or drawn but in the other two we could have got wins if we’d taken our chances. I certainly think a point against Aberdeen would have been fair. The boys will take confidence from the way they played on Saturday because Pittdorie’s probably the second-hardest place you’ll go in a season after Celtic Park. The results have not been what we would have liked but we’re certainly not panicking.”
McPake will play no part on Sunday as he is still working his way back from a horrific kneecap fracture which he suffered almost 20 months ago in a challenge with Dundee United’s John Rankin. After four operations, however, the centre-back, who remained club captain until recently, has reason for optimism in his pursuit of a long-awaited return to action.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “I got back last December and played three reserve games and I could have stayed fit and played but I was nowhere near the level I needed to be at in order to play in the Premiership. My knee was still restricting me so it was either a case of staying at that level and accepting it or trying again so I decided to try another operation in the hope that it would get it better and back to a level that I was happy with, not just for football but also for the rest of my life. If at any point the surgeons had told me it wasn’t going to work, I would have listened to them but they felt they could get it better and I felt looking at the bigger picture it was worth setting myself back six months or so to try it.
“I had a big operation just over three months ago and it’s just been healing time since then. I’ve just started running on the anti-gravity treadmill, so this is hopefully the start of me having a better knee than I came back with in December. There’s still miles to go but I can see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been caught a few times by setting targets so I purposefully said with this one, I’d just wait and see. In my head I’ve got a target, which is not too far away, but I’m not going to come out and say what it is. The knee now feels better than it’s ever been since I first got the injury. I now need to build up my running to get some fitness back and then see how I cope in training.
“I knew straight away it was going to be a bad one. The physio said it was one of the worst he’d ever seen. The surgeon has always been honest with me. He said at the start it was going to be tough to get back but he’s always said he believed we could get it right. The lowest point was probably when I got back playing in December after all the rehab and realised it still wasn’t quite right. It was so frustrating. The hard part about it is that I’ve got a wee girl who’s just about to turn three and she’s seen me more in a knee brace than walking about normally. I’ve been in a brace probably for 12 of the last 19 months, so that’s driving me on to get through this and get back out there on the pitch. Fingers crossed, this time it works out.”