There have been many changes in the ten years since he left Hibs for Rangers but Steven Whittaker believes the biggest difference is the winning mentality Neil Lennon has brought to the club.
As a player, Whittaker faced Lennon plenty of times but he insists his new manager hasn’t lost any of the determination and drive he showed in abundance when he was pulling on the green and white of Celtic.
To that end, the 33-year-old has no problem in hearing that Lennon has already set his sights on ending Hibs’ first season back in the Premiership as being “best of the rest”, the title already a given for Brendan Rodgers’ side before a ball is even kicked.
“I played against him and his determination sticks out,” said Whittaker. “He’s a winner and you can see that from the chats I’ve had and from seeing him on the side of the pitch.
“You can see that he wants to win matches, probably the same as he was as a player. You can see the change that’s had with the squad already and hopefully we can be successful.
“He definitely won’t settle for seventh or eighth. It was a shame for Hibs to be in the Championship for three years and given the stature of the club they should never have been down there in the first place.
“We’re a big club in this league and we need to go out there and show that.
“There’s definitely been a change of mindset within the club. It’s one of the biggest things that the manager’s brought. There’s nothing better than going back to our family on a Saturday knowing that you’ve got the three points in the bag. It’s just a different feeling.”
Whittaker, of course, was part of that “golden generation” of Hibs kids which included the likes of Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan and Steven Fletcher, ending his first spell with the Capital club with a CIS Insurance Cup winner’s medal in his pocket.
A £2 million move to Rangers followed and then a switch to Norwich City as the Ibrox club was engulfed by the financial meltdown which saw them liquidated and left to start life again in League Two.
Having signed a three-year deal, Whittaker returns to Easter Road full of experience and a burning desire to impart his knowledge on today’s youngsters.
He said: “Obviously, I was at Rangers when the manager was at Celtic. Because we’ve both been involved with the Old Firm we probably have that winning mentality. You pick up a lot of things. The manager’s certainly been there and done it, and I’ve got a lot of shared experiences as well. It’s something we can hopefully help bring to the squad. The manager’s been doing that already.”
Hibs’ training centre at East Mains was opened only a few months after Whittaker had departed for Rangers, and Brown to Celtic and, he admitted, he’s a touch envious given the facilities now on offer.
He said: “We used to meet at Easter Road and jump in the mini-bus or our cars and be told where to drive to, to training grounds all over the city. This is a more professional way of coming in and doing your work. For the young guys that have got this to come into, they should take full advantage of it.
“Whether it was luck, the group I was with all went on to enjoy good careers individually. Why it was all at the same time, we don’t know. We really progressed well through the ranks and into the first team and we kept progressing.
“It’s great to see that for a club like this. Now we’ve got this facility with the younger guys, they’ve got a great platform to push on and push the likes of us that are in the first team.”
To this day, Whittaker is grateful for the guidance and advice he received from the older players as he was a youngster trying to make his way in the game and now he’s determined to do likewise, revealing he is looking forward to becoming involved in the coaching side of the game.
He said: “I feel like one of the older pros. You see the younger boys making mistakes that you maybe made at that age so you’re there to guide them and have quiet chats in their ears.
“That’s part of my role now as well. I had the likes of Gary Smith, who was someone you could rely on, a sensible defender. It’s wasn’t so much the chats, but I used to watch the likes of Franck Sauzee when I was coming through, seeing what a tremendous player he was.
“I did my B licence a couple of years ago which involved a bit of coaching. I’ve been concentrating on playing since, but now I’m back here I’m keen to take the next step. It’s something I’d like to get involved in.”
Whittaker hasn’t played as much as he would have liked over the past couple of seasons, falling out of favour at Norwich and subsequently losing his place in the Scotland squad.
It was a new experience but one he insists hasn’t soured his memories of England. He said: “There were times it was hard, but over all it was good. I’ve god memories of playing in the Premier League, in the best stadiums against the best players.
“It was tough because it was the first time in my career that I’d not been playing consistently. The manager wanted to go in a different direction with different players. But I always had the mindset that it was my career and I couldn’t afford to go through the motions. I still had to go in and give my best.”