Farid El Alagui has hailed Hibs for proving they are serious about building a “culture” at Easter Road by handing long-serving defenders Darren McGregor and David Gray four-year contract extensions.
In an era where longevity at a particular club is rare for footballers, 33-year-old McGregor and 30-year-old Gray will have been at Easter Road for eight and nine years respectively if they stay until the expiry of their newly-signed deals in 2023. In addition, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson, who have both been with Hibs for over a decade, have been rewarded with long-term contracts within the past year.
Captain Gray was Hibs’ first signing after the club implemented a new structure in the wake of relegation to the Championship in 2014, while McGregor arrived a year later. El Alagui, who joined Hibs a few days after Gray, believes his old club’ are on “the right path” by retaining dependable senior players who supporters can identify with, as opposed to simply replacing them with younger, fresher faces.
“It’s a very intelligent move from Hibs but I’m not surprised by this because at the time I signed and met the people at Hibs, I knew they had the right type of people who would look after the club the right way,” El Alagui, who spent two years at Hibs, told the Evening News. “They were thinking already about the long-term project with the players they were signing – it was not just a quick fix at the time and this just proves that. They’ve stuck to their word.
“People always think that bringing in a new signing is the best thing a club can do, but for me keeping your key players is the best business you can do. Securing those two players on four-year contracts is amazing. I’ve not seen many clubs doing that in Scotland, especially for guys in their 30s, but it’s a great thing that Hibs have done.
“Dave signed at the same time as me in 2014, five years ago now, and Daz came the year after. That’s already a long, long time for footballers to be at a particular club. Most players now are generally only with a club for one or two seasons. Two seasons is probably the average so it’s a big thing for them to have been at Hibs this long, never mind another four years.
“When me and Dave first signed, there weren’t many players already at Hibs. Lewy and Paul were the only ones who had been there for any length of time. But now Dave and Daz will have roughly the same sort of status as those two. For me, this is a good example of a club building a culture and an identity by having players who stay as long as possible and remain involved even after their playing career finishes. I think this is the right path.”
McGregor and Gray helped Hibs win the Scottish Cup in 2016, and El Alagui feels they are the perfect role models for any new players arriving at the club. “The two of them have produced and have been immense for Hibs,” said the 33-year-old former Easter Road striker. “Dave will obviously be remembered for his goal in the cup final. He is a true legend to the club. But apart from that, the two of them will leave a strong legacy. They will be a big example to any players who come to the club and also to the young ones.”
El Alagui joined Hibs just days after Gray in 2014, and the right-back went in to be named club captain by Alan Stubbs just a year later. “I knew probably from my first week training with him at Hibs that Dave Gray was going to be a big player for the club,” El Alagui said. “Just from chatting to him, you know what type of person you’re dealing with. As a footballer, he’s a great defender who will give 100 per cent every time he’s on the pitch or the training field. He’s an example on and off the pitch. He always makes himself available to speak to people. He never looks down on anyone. He’s a person I look up to because he has the type of human qualities you respect.”
El Alagui spent a year as a team-mate of McGregor and paid tribute to the veteran centre-back dedication to keeping himself in prime condition. “He’s one of the most professional guys I’ve ever seen, always looking after himself,” said El Alagui. “He’s looked after his body really well and that’s probably the main reason he’s been able to play on longer than a lot of others. He’s always in the gym, before or after training, stretching and doing the right things to make sure his body is alright. He’s also a very nice guy, always looking round about to help other people. It’s not just about the two of them as footballers, they are both great people first and foremost.”
McGregor and Gray are both regular starters in a team thriving under Paul Heckingbottom and El Alagui sees no reason why they can’t play on for the duration of their contracts. “Age to me is just a number,” he said. “We stereotype players once they hit their 30s as being on the way down but you have to look at a player’s lifestyle and their fitness levels. I see players at 33 who are fitter than players in their 20s. Age doesn’t matter. If you are fit at 33, you can carry on and play. It’s not an issue at all. When they feel their time is up, they’ll be the first ones to say listen, ‘I don’t think I’m giving so much to the team, I think the younger ones should take over from me’. There’s no doubt about that.”