Steven Whittaker is enjoying adapting to a new central midfield role as he bids to maximise his contribution for Hibs in the twilight of his career.
With his pace having naturally diminished over recent seasons, the 34-year-old’s time as a marauding right-back appears to be over. Towards the end of last season and in the opening matches of the current one, Whittaker has predominantly been utilised as a sitting midfielder by Neil Lennon. As a player renowned for his versatility, the former Scotland internationalist has embraced learning a new role in order to prolong his involvement at the top level.
“I’m still getting used to the position but I’m enjoying it in there,” Whittaker told the Evening News.
“I’ve got a little bit more protection in there and I can read the game a bit more from there. I’m enjoying getting on the ball, trying to play passes and breaking up play. I’ve always been quite versatile throughout my career, but when you get to 34, you need to look at what attributes you’ve still got, compared to when you were younger, and adapt accordingly. You lose a bit of pace and sharpness, so by changing to central midfield, you can read a lot of the play rather than allow yourself to get isolated out on the right.
“The manager has seen my career and seen that I can play a few different positions so he knew when he signed me he could use me at right-back, central midfield, centre-back or even left-back where I played a few times for Scotland and Norwich. I ended up at right centre-back towards the end of the Aberdeen game last week so there’s still a couple of positions I can fill. I’ve played there a few times so if I’m asked to fill in there, I feel fairly comfortable. We’ve got good centre-backs doing well just now so I’m not really needed there at the moment, but if the manager needs me to fill in there, I’ll get on with it.”
Whittaker, who impressed in the 1-1 draw with the Dons at Easter Road last weekend, is happy to hold the fort while ball-playing midfield colleagues like Stevie Mallan, Daryl Horgan and Emerson Hyndman take the game to the opposition.
“The other midfielders are all technically good and can use the ball well so I just need to keep things steady and be the body behind that can let them go and get involved in the play,” he explained.
“Stevie’s scored some fantastic goals for us already, Emerson’s really neat on the ball and Daryl’s played in midfield as well and had a fantastic start. We’ve got plenty ball players in there who want to get on the ball and play, so my job is to sit back and let them get on with it. You can still dictate a bit from that position and keep the ball switching from side to side, but it’s always nice to have players like that alongside you who can handle the ball so well.”
Whittaker recognises that the right-wing-back position within a 3-5-2 is now more suited to the likes of Martin Boyle and David Gray. “Boyley’s done fantastically at right-wing-back,” he said. “He was probably one of our players of the season last year. His speed and his ability to run with the ball and get us up the park is obviously a big asset. I can’t say I can match that now. Ten years ago that was my game but not so much now.
“Davie Gray’s also played there quite a bit this season and got forward and scored a few goals so it shows that we have good options and can adapt. That stands us in good stead for a long season.”
Another factor Whittaker has had to adapt to in his veteran years is the rise of plastic pitches in Scottish football. Hibs will have to play on one of them tomorrow as they bid to maintain their unbeaten Premiership start on Livingston’s much-maligned artificial surface.
“I don’t think I’ve met a footballer who likes playing on plastic pitches,” said Whittaker.
“Twisting, turning, running and slide-tackling are not as good on plastic, and the ball doesn’t move as well as it would on grass.
“You train on a lovely grass surface through the week and then you end up having to go and try and win three points on a plastic pitch.
“We’ve got no control over the fact some clubs have them so we’ve just got to get on with it and adapt. We’ve played on them recently at Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Molde. I saw Livingston’s pitch was getting a bit of criticism recently so that’s something we have to overcome. We have to approach it the right way mentally and hopefully it won’t hold us back too much.”