Easter Road was where James McPake laid the foundations for a successful career, and now the home of Hibs will once again provide the backdrop as the centre-back aims to rebuild his reputation in football.
By signing a temporary contract for Pat Fenlon’s side, the Coventry City defender made a return to the place he took his first steps in football this week. He hopes returning to the venue where he made his first-team debut for Livingston in April 2004 can help kick-start a career recently blighted by injury.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he said: “I have suffered some frustrating times in football, but now I’m buzzing by being fit again and getting the opportunity to be back up the road at Hibs,” said the 27-year-old in his Lanarkshire accent.
“I’m not up here to necessarily win my place back at Coventry or to win a move to another club. First and foremost, I’m here to help Hibs and I think I can help them do that. If I can get back to form, the future will take care of itself.”
Judging by the lack of cohesion in the Hibs defence during Saturday’s defeat to St Johnstone, it is highly possible that the injection of McPake’s experience could spark an upturn in defensive displays by Fenlon’s men. His leadership and vocal nature should help bind a youthful group of defenders lacking in confidence into a more united, organised unit.
“I’m quite vocal and will have my say,” said McPake. “I think that’s what’s needed in teams, and hopefully I can add that. It’s the way I am, and I don’t know if I could change it. Whether it’s shouting at 20 players I didn’t know at Coventry at first, or the four or five players I know at Hibs, hopefully I can make a difference.
“The message all around is that Hibs are a better team than where they’re positioned. At the minute, that counts for nothing – we’re second bottom and need to push on and put points on the board.
“I’ll get in and I’ll be vocal, and hopefully that helps the people around me. Every player can add their own style to a game.”
Now in his ninth season of senior football, McPake’s tally of 150 league starts is a sign that his body has not always shown the strength and dominance that typifies his uncompromising performances in defence. After suffering a broken leg at the age of 18, McPake suffered a second serious injury a year ago when he fractured three vertebrae in his back in a match against Barnsley.
A slow but steady comeback began at the start of this season, and McPake has played six games in total this term. In spite of Coventry’s placing at the foot of the Championship, the form of centre-backs Martin Cranie and Richard Keogh have deprived McPake of the chance to attempt a speedier return to regular football. Now he has been handed the opportunity by Hibs to continue the process of rediscovering his form, “steel and commitment” are qualities the defender feels he can add to an ailing Easter Road side.
“With a broken leg, you know how long you’re going to be back. I would say the back injury was worse. It happened just after New Year last year, but it was the type of injury where I didn’t know how long it would take to heel. I’ve been out for a while, but when I heard about the possibility of going on loan to one of a few clubs in January I was really keen to get playing again.
“My first impression when I walked into the training centre [at East Mains] was how good a set-up it is, and that it’s too good a set-up for where they are in the league. When you train with the boys, as well, and see the standard of the players, it’s hard to see why Hibs are near the bottom.”
Decidedly easier for McPake will be the task of settling after returning north of the Border, as there will be no shortage of friendly faces around to help ease him into his spell at Easter Road.
By moving back to his home village just outside Airdrie, he and goalkeeper Mark Brown will travel together along the M8 to training at East Mains every day. When he arrives to Hibs’ base just outside Tranent, his old Livingston team-mates Leigh Griffiths, Martin Scott and Michael Hart will offer familiar surroundings – a stark contrast to the situation McPake faced when making the move to Coventry from Livingston.
“I’ve been impressed with a lot of the younger boys in training, and obviously there’s a lot of boys I already know, like Leigh Griffiths, ‘Jimmy’ Scott and Michael Hart.
“It does help going into a dressing-room where you know people. I went down south and went into a dressing-room where I didn’t know anyone. Knowing people here wasn’t a reason to go to Hibs, but it helps having people to talk to.”
Despite the intimidating prospect of moving to Coventry at a relatively tender age, McPake harbours no regrets about moving to the English Midlands – indeed, he has thoroughly enjoyed his three years there.
“Although I was a young boy, it was the right time to go. I’d been captain of Livingston for a few years and at 24 it wasn’t as if I was too young. I thought the time was right to test myself in that league, and when I’ve been fit and playing I have proven myself there.
“In recent months, it’s been difficult for myself and Coventry City, if you see where they are in the league.
“I had been out injured for eight months, and it was hard for the manager [Andy Thorn] to stick me in and stick with me for five to six games while I found my bearings.
“I’ve played four-to-five first-team and some reserve games, and feel as though I’m back up to scratch. I played against Derby the weekend before last.
“When I started back in August, I felt a bit of a way off. But, I kept training, and since then I’ve only missed a week’s training due to a tight hamstring. I’ve been training hard, working hard, and getting myself fitter and stronger. In the games I’ve played, I’ve felt back to normal.”
Hibs can only hope that a bout of new arrivals will inspire the club to regain top form in a similar fashion to that experienced by McPake.