Hibs’ growing reputation as a team for the big occasion owes plenty to the influence of fans’ favourites John McGinn and Darren McGregor.
As the Easter Road side prepare for arguably their most significant match of the season so far away to title rivals Dundee United tomorrow night, most supporters would have the former St Mirren pair as their first two names on the team sheet.
Just 19 months into their respective Hibs careers, McGinn and McGregor have already cemented their status as club legends after helping win the Scottish Cup last season. In two months’ time, they will hope to have added a Championship title win to their accomplishments in green and white.
To do that, they will have to snap out of a four-game run without a league win. Given their well-documented penchant for high-profile matches of late, they are widely expected to turn up at a pumped-up Tannadice tomorrow evening and reassert their authority at the top of the league. Big performances from their defensive bedrock and their midfield driving force will be imperative.
“I was at the cup replay against Hearts [last month] and John and Darren were outstanding,” said Danny Lennon, who effectively gave both McGinn and McGregor their launchpads at St Mirren and Cowdenbeath respectively. “If Hibs can keep those two fit, they should be strong enough to win the Championship. Wee McGinn for me is one of the top players in Scotland for his age. When he plays [well], Hibs play. There’s no doubt about that. He’s infectious. He goes in for 60/40 balls against and he comes out with it. Darren is solid at the back. He plays it very simple because by his own admission he’s not so strong on the ball, but he’s a terrific no-nonsense defender. There isn’t a manager in the world who wouldn’t want a character like Darren McGregor in their dressing room.”
McGinn, aged just 22, has already won both domestic trophies and earned full Scotland recognition since being given his St Mirren debut by Lennon as a 17-year-old. He is deemed the club’s most valuable asset. “He just seems to be getting better and better,” said Lennon. “At the time he got his move to Hibs, I felt John McGinn was a Celtic-quality player. I still do. Scott Brown’s done fantastically well but McGinn has all the same qualities and is probably even more graceful on the ball. He’s tremendous technically. Hibs are very fortunate to have him at this moment in time. He’s the driving force of the team and he gets people on the edge of their seat.”
If the burgeoning McGinn provides the spark, the late-flourishing McGregor brings the assurance. The 31-year-old’s team-mate Grant Holt recently joked that his rise from clothes-shop worker at 24 to Scottish Cup-winning Hibee at 30 should be made into a movie. Lennon, who signed McGregor for both Cowdenbeath and St Mirren, always had faith in a player who made rapid progress from Arniston Rangers to Glasgow Rangers despite being hindered by two cruciate injuries in his time at St Mirren. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s made such a big impact at Hibs,” said Lennon. “At Cowdenbeath he helped us to back-to-back promotions. In his first year at St Mirren, he was our player of the year. In his first year at Rangers, some people questioned why they had signed him, but he was their player of the year. Hibs was a great move for him in terms of he and his family being Hibs through and through. Every set of fans that Darren McGregor has played for will appreciate him because he always gives 100 per cent on and off the pitch.
“Once you start to work with him, you see how intense he is with his football. He’s an intelligent footballer both on the pitch and in terms of knowing the right things to do off it. He got an opportunity to go full-time at 25 and he’s grasped that. He wants to get better.”
Lennon believes McGregor’s wholehearted approach on the pitch and his amiable nature off it have been key factors in him becoming one of the most popular Hibs players of the modern era. “He’s got such a tremendous appetite for the game,” said Lennon. “He’s such a positive person with a tremendous attitude that rubs off on other people around him. He lives and breathes football and he’s very much a family man. He’s just had a second child a few weeks ago.
“He had great values as a young man when I had him at Cowdenbeath and St Mirren. He was very close with his mum and his siblings. As the oldest in his family, he would take leadership from that. That’s the way he lives his life on and off the pitch. He takes responsibility. He’s done incredibly well to come so far. When he had those bad injuries I wondered if he’d lose that burst of pace he has to recover over 10-to-15 yards, but he’s still got it. He’s incredible.”