As a kid at Easter Road, Steven Whittaker was a “sponge”, soaking up every little piece of advice he could glean from Hibs’ first-team players.
Now, back at the Capital club for a second spell and at 33 years of age in the veteran stage of his own career, Whittaker hopes today’s youngsters will lean on his experience in the same way he did of the likes of Gary Smith and Stephen Glass.
Revealing he’s enjoying life second time around in a green-and-white shirt more than even he had anticipated on returning following ten years away playing for Rangers and then Norwich, Whittaker insisted that while the body may be a little bit older, he still retains the hunger and enthusiasm of his youth.
Already he’s played 16 times for Neil Lennon’s side, one game short of the number of appearances he made during his final season at Carrow Road and five more than the previous term as he found himself on the periphery of things and consequently losing his place in the Scotland squad.
A pelvic problem has interrupted that run – Whittaker hopes to be back in action within the next couple of weeks – and he said: “Sixteen games is definitely the most I’ve played in a row for a couple of years. That was part of wanting to come home, to play as many games as I can from now until it is all over.”
He admitted, though, to one slight concern as he prepared to return to where it all began for him on a three-year deal, that fans would expect exactly the same player as that which departed for Ibrox in a £2 million deal a decade ago.
“I was here for seven years through the younger time of my career,” he said. “And people expect you to come back and be the same player.
“Ten years have passed since then. I’m 33 now and definitely not the same player, although I feel I can still do a good job and help anyone in any way I can. As you get older you have to adapt and change different bits of your game, you look after your body and things like that.
“But I still have the willingness and determination to play as many games as I can until I finish.”
However, if Whittaker still has a key role in Lennon’s vision for Hibs immediate future, he’s hoping his influence can still be evident long after he finally hangs up his boots.
Part of that “golden generation” alongside the likes of Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor and Stephen Fletcher, Whittaker believes he can play a part in the development of current youngsters such as Ryan Porteous, Fraser Murray and Oli Shaw in the same way Smith and Glass did in his.
He said: “When I was in the youth team I’d watch the Franck Sauzees and so on. Big Franck was a fair age himself then.
“And then when I was breaking into the first team there was the likes of Gary who had played at a good level here and in France for a bit, while Glassy who had played at Newcastle.
“You looked up to the older pros. I was just so keen that anyone who had anything to say to me I’d try to take it in. I tried to soak up as much as I could whether on or off the pitch. I just wanted to be the best I possibly could be. I look at the youngsters here today and I see they also have a good attitude – and they have this place [Hibs’ East Mains training centre] which gives them a head start right away. It’s a great place to come and try to make the best of yourself.”
It goes without saying that Whittaker has returned to find the Easter Road club on the up following a number of years in the doldrums and the past three in the Championship but, he insisted, Scottish football as a whole appears to be on an upward trajectory particularly with Hibs, Hearts and Rangers all back in the top flight. But, he argued, the renaissance is much wider with an unpredictability capable of throwing up a sequence of results such as those at the weekend.
He said: “Hibs have been successful over the last couple of years, winning the Scottish Cup and then the Championship, the fans have had a lot to go home happy about. That in itself brings the numbers out and it’s continued this season with us getting to the semi-final of the Betfred Cup and doing well in the league.
“Overall, though, I think the standard this year is really good. Motherwell are doing well as are Aberdeen, while Rangers will possibly have been hoping they’d be a bit more consistent. No doubt Celtic will go on and win the league, but under that everything seems to be up for grabs. If you look at some of the results at the weekend I don’t think anyone would have predicted them. Winning teams bring out the crowds but so, too, possibly the unpredictability of it all, the closer games are the more exciting they are for supporters.
“We were confident we could win ourselves at the weekend, but it’s the results over the season that count, we need to continue to pick up the points and stay as close to Celtic as we can.”