Steven Whittaker has known Scott Brown and Steven Fletcher since they were all starry-eyed teenagers coming through the ranks at Hibs more than a decade ago.
Now relative veterans, he’d love the chance to cap their long alliance by starring together for Scotland at Euro 2016 in France.
The trio were part of an exciting group of youngsters who emerged at Easter Road under Bobby Williamson and then Tony Mowbray midway through the Noughties and subsequently left Hibs for a combined amount in excess of £9 million.
Whittaker, 30, is currently trying to help Norwich City return to the English Premier League following a fruitful spell at Rangers. Brown, 29, is captain of Celtic. And Fletcher, 28, is coming to the end of his sixth season as a Premier League player, a period encompassing spells at Burnley, Wolves and current club Sunderland.
The prospect of these three boyhood friends gracing one of the biggest stages in football with Scotland in 15 months’ time is an exciting one for Whittaker. “I grew up with Fletch and Scott – I used to see them every day from a young age so we’ll always be mates,” he said. “We were really lucky with the group that came through at Hibs back then. We had some great quality in our youth team and it’s great that we’ve all gone on to do well.
“Myself, Scott and Fletch are all playing on the big stage with our clubs and at international level, which is the best you can get. It’s hard to believe it’s a decade since we all came through together, but it would be great if having known each other for so long, we could all go on and play at a major European finals together. I’m sure Hibs would be pretty happy with that as well.”
It is not just the former Hibs contingent who have grown together. The current Scotland squad has a core of players of a similar age who have been through the trials and tribulations of representing Scotland over the past five to ten years. Darren Fletcher, Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Steven Naismith, Christophe Berra, Shaun Maloney are among this number.
“When you come away with Scotland you’re with loads of boys that you’ve known for years or played with before, whether it’s from Hibs, Rangers or Norwich. Because there’s so many boys who have played together at club level, it’s a really close group which isn’t always the case at international level. This is as close-knit a squad as I’ve been involved in.”
Whittaker, who will hope to claim one of the full-back berths tomorrow, hopes this sense of togetherness can bear fruit in the form of a first major tournament qualification for 18 years. The Scots are right in the thick of what looks to be a four-way battle in Group D, with victory over Ireland in the last qualifier four months ago adding to the momentum and feelgood factor.
All that optimism will evaporate if the Scots don’t emerge with three points from tomorrow’s teatime encounter with a Gibraltar side who have already shipped seven goals against both Poland and Ireland.
“We’re at home to the country that looks like they’re going to finish bottom of the group so we can’t be slipping up,” said Whittaker. “I think everyone’s expecting a lot of goals and we’ll go into the game hoping that’s what happens. We know they’ll set up with a lot of men behind the ball, but we’ve definitely got the quality to break them down.
“Ireland scored within the first five minutes and went on to score seven against them, so if we can score an early one and take the wind out of their sails, that would be great. But if we don’t, patience will be key. If we keep prodding away, we should have the quality to break them down. Three points is the most important thing and then we can see where that leaves us in relation to results elsewhere, but if we can add to our goal difference as well, that would be great.”
After tomorrow’s game, Scotland will be half-way through their campaign and victory will ensure they are, at the very least, joint second in the table.
“We’ve got this one, then Ireland in the summer and then we have a wee break before we’re into next season. The Euros will be here before you know it and we’re all optimistic about the way things are going and feel we’ve got enough about us to make the finals.”