Interview: James McPake, Hibernian captain
FIRST I think I’m going to Airdrie to meet the Hibs captain James McPake and I’m pleased. The last time I was there on football business the score was Airdrieonians 0, Alan Gordon 4 and the time before that John Brownlie inspired a 6-2 win in the League Cup as Turnbull’s Tornadoes charged towards a triumphant day at Hampden.
But then our rendezvous gets moved to Livingston, a place with unhappy League Cup resonances for the Leith team. Frankly, though, which town doesn’t?
McPake was an unused squad member when Livi beat Hibs in the final nine seasons ago and he was watching from the stands again on Tuesday when Second Division Queen of the South ended Easter Road interest for this campaign. “It was desperately disappointing,” says the rested skipper, “especially as the League Cup is a competition where the club have done well – though there have been a few bad nights in it as well, I think.” This is mightly impressive from the big man. Hibs’ three successes in the past 40 years mask no less than ten sucker punches from the lower leagues. They’re just as likely to cock up in the League Cup as the Scottish and the skipper, hoping that one day he might climb the steps and wipe his hands on the velvet drapes before grasping green-and-white ribboned silverware, has clearly been doing his homework.
We meet at the Deer Park Golf & Country Club and right away the defender apologises for his casual appearance; he didn’t know he was going to be having his photo taken. Ian the lensman wants him in the bowling alley and there’s some hesitation – “What’s the daft caption going to be?” – before he obliges. It’s as if Hibs, through their 28-year-old leader on the pitch, are determined to make a good impression at every turn after the epic misery of last season. So what happened down at Palmerston?
“I don’t like criticising my team, but we were nowhere near it,” he says. “Straight from the off, Queens were hungrier and seemed to want the win more. I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but on the night every single player let himself down. The manager said he was disgusted, and rightly so.” Maybe if the captain had been playing the outcome would have been different. “Ach, I don’t know. We still had a side out there, no disrespect to Queens, who were capable of doing the job: a striker with 60 caps, a guy who’s skippered Scotland Under 21s, another Under 21s cap, guys with Championship experience. Afterwards the players were very disappointed and believe me they should have been. This was cup football again and I’d so wanted us to do well, especially after what happened in May ... ”
We’ll come back to Hearts 5, Hibs 1 later because, as McPake admits: “That was the worst day of my life, the lowest I’ve felt, ever.” But the Hibees resume in the Premier League at Celtic Park today and technically you could call it a table-topping clash. This is a thoughtful young man who takes his club responsibilties seriously and wants to say the right things so he insists: “We’re not getting carried away: two wins can’t be called a run.” Nevertheless, the early indicators for 2012-13 have been encouraging.
In the Easter Road shop, shirt sponsors Crabbies celebrate the tie-up with the slogan: “A Hibs team with bottle.” Long-suffering fans, veterans of so many crushing Hampden disappointments, will be dismayed that a DNA flaw they’ve always acknowledged within the privacy of their own heavily-shuttered homes has apparently become such common football currency that the club cannot stop it being used as a jingle. McPake, though, hopes the soft-touch reputation will soon be completely historical.
“We’re a work in progress,” he says, continuing to choose his words carefully, “but in those two wins things happened which I think shows we’re changing, things which wouldn’t have happened last season when we got bullied too often. We weren’t being outplayed, but we’d go a goal down and just shrink. At St Mirren a fortnight ago we went two-nil up, then they got one back. Last season they’d probably have turned it right round and won, but we hung on. Then against St Johnstone last Saturday we went in an half-time one up and right across the dressing-room guys were having words with each other. I won’t tell you what was said but it was heavy, no one was holding back. Last season, when we couldn’t buy a victory at home, we’d have been delighted just to be ahead. Last week St Johnstone had been much the better team up until that point and we knew it.”
So what are his ambitions for Hibs this season? “Well, we were saying at training today that we’d take 11th in the league again if this time we could win the Scottish Cup. But in view of what happened on Tuesday, maybe we should leave talking about the cups until they come around. As regards the league, though, top six should be our aim. And do you know, that’s not good enough for a fantastic club like Hibs. Some folk will think I’m having a laugh – all the Jambos who follow me on Twitter for sure – but I think we should be aiming for one of the European places. I might take a slagging for saying that, given we only just escaped relegation last time, but we are Hibernian Football Club and no one can take that away from us.”
McPake, born in the Lanarkshire village of Salsburgh, close to Shotts and best known for “the M8 church”, wasn’t a Hibs fan as a boy but is one now. Now he knows that all fans are deeply suspicious of badge-kissing. He knows that Hibs fans have probably had their fill of new signings enthusing about Edinburgh, Easter Road, the training complex and, who knows, maybe even the mime programme at the Festival – then watched them playing like they’re on holiday. Still he says: “I don’t know what it is, but I just feel a bond with this club. I mean, all players should have that as professionals wherever they are, but I know that not all do. I’m not saying I’m special in having that bond with Hibs. Really, it’s Hibs that are special in this. It’s easy, I think, to come here and play and have respect for the club, its history and of course those fantastic fans and want to try and give them some happy days. Well, it has been for me.”
McPake, an ex-striker who thanks Hearts legend John Robertson when the latter was his manager at Livingston for his conversion to central defence, was one of Pat Fenlon’s seven-man January rescue squad of loan signings and, bogglingly, while shaking hands with his new team-mates on arrival from Coventry City he was already wearing the captain’s armband.
“Without being big-headed, I think the manager had done his homework on me. I’d been captain of Livingston at a young age and had worn the armband at Coventry. Was I daunted given I was just in the door? No, not at all. I wasn’t worried about the reaction of other players. I might care what people think of me away from football, but guys reckoning it was a disgrace I was made captain didn’t bother me. Looking back, it turned out to be an okay decision. I helped the football club and they helped me in getting back playing.” And his gutsy performances would bring him an end-of-season first cap for Northern Ireland – he qualifies through his Coleraine-born grandfather – even though Holland with Robin van Persie won 6-0 and by that stage McPake had seen quite enough goals whizz past him.
Okay, there’s no getting away from it: Hearts 5, Hibs 1. “It was a game no-one affiliated with these clubs will ever forget and sadly for Hibs it turned out to be the worst-ever day,” he says. Hibs fans were desperately looking for a hero last season and McPake fitted the bill – but was the pressure to end the Scottish Cup hoodoo, and especially against their bitter capital rivals, just too much? “No, it was exciting and I felt honoured to be the captain going into the final. Pat Stanton said something nice about me and I remember my dad phoning me and saying: ‘Go and buy a paper and see what a real legend thinks of you.’ Then Lawrie Reilly said he’d have given up a couple of his league championship medals to have won the cup. I have to confess I didn’t know about the exploits of the Famous Five, but when guys like that are rooting for you it’s a fantastic feeling. I know much more about the history now. Billy, our Prozone guy, puts names to faces for me in the fantastic picture gallery we’ve got at the training complex. So, aye, it’s just a pity we let everyone down.”
This was the tone of McPake’s only immediate-post-final tweet, when he apologised to fans for that toweringly bad performance. Other players who posted from nightspots just hours after the game enraged Fenlon, the jokey themes then and the next morning telling the manager that some weren’t hurting enough – and in effect they signed their own exit papers. Although the team were hardly setting the heather on fire before Fenlon’s arrival, and he clearly had to act in the January window, most fans deemed the decision to have as many as six loanees playing in the final a dismal failure, and a policy never to be repeated.
The ever-considered McPake says: “I believe in the manager. With the quality of player he’s bringing in now he’s turning the club around and I hope he’s given the time to see the job through. But his priority when he arrived was to keep Hibs in the SPL. Given the situation he inherited, that was a tough task, but he achieved it. Getting to the cup final was a fantastic bonus, but we were always a team struggling for form. I don’t like it when I hear folk say we didn’t care. You should have seen how badly real Hibbies like Garry O’Connor and Ian Murray took that result. But was it wrong to have so many loan players out there? I don’t know. It’s probably true, though, that some of them will have just walked away and been like: ‘Right, where am I going on holiday?’”
For his part, McPake says he hates losing any game, that his family and friends are aware of this, and know not to phone him after a defeat. Forty-two of them, including his wife Dawn, hired their own bus for the final and were ready to commiserate with him at the end, but McPake couldn’t face anyone. “I didn’t go back on the team bus. It wasn’t because there were guys I didn’t want to be with. I genuinely think I was in shock. I quickly texted my brother: ‘Wait for me outside the main entrance.’ I just went home. I tried not to replay the game in my head, but of course I did, and how I should have done better for their second goal. I’ve never watched it back and I never will but I know that that’s a day which will never leave me.”
McPake describes himself as a quiet-living fellow who’s never had a night out in Edinburgh. He’s happy walking his labrador or watching his favourite soaps. He’s not the kind of football nut who overdoses on televised football, so he’s been amused by how his wife has become hooked on the game. “She’s gone from knowing nothing about it to telling me how to mark up at corners. Now she never misses a Hibs match, home or away.”
It seemed that the cup final would be McPake’s last, but this loanee wasn’t done with the club. The fans wanted him to stay, so did the manager, and a deal was struck, enabling him to resume his merry social networking banter with the Jambos – “I like twitter. Footballers had got too remote from the punters” – and, for the new season photos, don a polo shirt based on a victorious Hibs’ strip from far too long ago.
“There’s unfinished business for me at Easter Road,” he says, but suddenly he’s worried that he might have given the wrong impression about the unfortunate events of 19 May. “Some folk might think Hibernian aren’t hurting. We are, but we’re putting it behind us. It still really hurts, deep down, but we’re trying not to let Hearts know that because this season we want to be bigger and better than them.”
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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