Gordon Rae played behind his fair share of midfielders during 13 years as a Hibs centre-back, but he believes one of the current crop is among one of the best he’s seen at Easter Road.
Marvin Bartley’s performances might not catch the headlines in the same way the likes of John McGinn or Dylan McGeough do, but the job he does for Neil Lennon’s team, according to Rae, makes him as important to Hibs as Nemanja Matic is to Manchester United.
The Hibees sit third in the Ladbrokes Premiership and have impressed on their return to the top flight. Rae, pictured bottom right, believes Bartley is a major factor in their success.
“For me, the boy Bartley is key to the whole thing,” he said. “He’s the guy that’s just happy to sit there. Lennon can pick his team around him being there, stable and knowing he’s not going to get carried away and go charging on past players. He’s a big strong guy, covers the ground well and just looks to me like he loves playing that position.
“Mourinho’s always talking about having stolen Matic off of Chelsea. These guys who can get the ball, keep it simple, keep it solid and be strong on the tackle, that’s what Bartley does – it’s brilliant.
“Obviously your goalscorers are going to be regarded as the most important. Having played most of my career as a defender, you appreciate guys that will just sit in that hole there. He does a great job – he lets the full-backs go, he can let the more attacking midfielders play.
Right back to the semi-final two years ago against Dundee United, he was magnificent. He then missed out a few games before the end of the season. He’s maybe not the most important, but definitely one of the key players.”
The holding midfielder role wasn’t as prevalent in Rae’s time in green and white, but there were those with similar responsibilities.
“We didn’t really have anyone that did that,” he recalled. “Dezzy Bremner did it to start with, but he was different because he just motored along. Neilly Orr, when he came he used just sit in front of us and when the centre backs were challenging and it was dropping, Neilly had a great knack of just sweeping up.
“I’m not saying they’re water carriers – they’re really important for us – but they know their role and understand the game. All the great teams have them. In England, they’re all talking about the midfield player who’ll sit. They’re all looking for them.”
It’s of course not a one-man show at Easter Road, and Rae is effusive in his praise of Neil Lennon. Thoughts will naturally turn to how long Hibs can keep a hold of their manager should the upward trajectory continue. Rae hopes it’s a long time and cautioned that life away from Hibs may not be as enjoyable.
“I think the club keeps them [manager and players] together,” he said. “Hibs are playing in front of almost full houses every home game now and that shows you what it’s all about. Where are they going to go and get better? They’ll maybe get better wages, but the grass isn’t always greener.
“That’s one of the big worries – if he goes, what happens? I think he looks quite happy – he’s rejuvenated his career at Hibs. He had a tough time at Bolton but he’s come back and got things going. He looks like he’s got a bit of fire in his belly again, like he was four, five or six years ago.
“Again, where does he go and get better? Alan Stubbs left after he won the Scottish Cup and within six months he’s out of business, he’s gone.
“Bolton was maybe the heart strings tugging him back to England. That’s something for him and the club to sit down about. For me, he can stay as long as he likes! The players obviously like him and the one thing that comes across is that he doesn’t miss them if they’re not performing. He’ll tell them exactly what’s happening and what they’ve got to improve.
“I think we’ve won a watch and the club’s fortunate to have him. The whole thing’s in good nick just now so long may it continue.”
Given Lennon’s Edinburgh derby record, the maroon half of the city will no-doubt hope bigger clubs come calling sooner rather than later. Hibs are unbeaten under Lennon, drawing one and winning two against their neighbours. Simon Murray’s early strike won the only league meeting of the season between the pair last month.
While obviously enjoying this current trend, Rae – whose time at Hibs coincided with a 17-game unbeaten run of Hearts and the beginnings of 22-in-a-row – knows only too well how cycles of derby dominance can shift.
“When I was first involved with derbies, we used to win them fairly regularly,” he explained. “Then it changed. I hope it won’t change again for a long, long time! It will change again, but there’s lots to look forward to and lots to be optimistic about. Really, things are going well.
Rae believes the togetherness and continuity forged by three years in the Championship has given Hibs the edge in recent derbies.
“I think maybe the three years they spent down in the Championship gave them an opportunity to really get together,” he assessed. “It looks to me like they’re a good unit with a good bond. The teams that do really well are teams that are together. Hibs are a right good unit that want to work hard for each other and put their boot in together, do things as a team. I think that comes from the manager and the coaching staff. It’s been instilled in them.
“They had a building process to put things together and even before Neil Lennon, Alan Stubbs started it. It’s been a continuous adding process and it looks to me like it’s really coming together.”