IT WAS a case of Darren McGregor respecting the enemy as the toing-and-froing over Scott Allan dominated Scotland’s football scene last summer. The defender may then have been at Rangers but he couldn’t help but admire Alan Stubbs as he refused to buckle in the face of concerted pressure to sell Allan to Hibernian’s Championship rivals. Now he sees Stubbs’ stance as telling in the Easter Road side standing up to opponents that they can overtake with a win at Ibrox tomorrow afternoon.
In the final week of the transfer window, Leither McGregor made his way to his football home after being declared surplus to requirements by new Rangers manager Mark Warburton – who at that time missed out on Allan as he was sold to Celtic – the 30-year-old centre-back being allowed to move between the challengers for the second tier in a fashion that Stubbs would not countenance with Allan. Yet, McGregor can boast 14 wins and a draw from 15 outings with his boyhood club which had endured a difficult month before his arrival. No wonder that playing for Stubbs, as much as his team, has surpassed his expectations.
“The boys have looked at that [the Allan situation] probably as I was looking at it as a Rangers player, in thinking the deal would be done because you see time and time again bigger teams coming in and taking players from lower ones,” he said. “But the resilience he showed, maybe that has rubbed off on the players. It showed that we have a gaffer who is here for the long term and wants to fight for the club – he is not from the area and [does not] have a previous attachment but has came in and made it his own.
“He has built his squad and has held firm in keeping them, so massive respect for that. His man-management skills and rapport with the players makes you want to play for him. You can have all the tactical know-how but if you have not got those then it is no use. I just think he has got it.
“He is held in great affection in the dressing room. It is a great mix in there. I know about dressing rooms being good but hand on my heart we do have a great blend of the old and the young. A lot of games are won Monday to Friday on the training pitch. It is how you interact with people. The camaraderie and togetherness that he has built. It is very hard to get that with 18 to 20 strangers and get them to want to play for each other. It is well known the gaffer rotates the squad and that can sometimes cause unrest but he has a great way of explaining his reasons to you that makes you take it on the chin. If someone is open and honest with you, it is very hard to take it any other way. I think he is the best manager that I have been under. Even his assistants John [Doolan] and Taf [Andy Holden] need a lot of praise as well. You couldn’t not want to play with them.”
Stubbs’ “shot to nothing” line about today’s trip to Govan after clawing back an eight-point deficit essentially lifted any weight of expectation from his players’ shoulders. That is yet one more smart aspect of his managerial approach according to McGregor, who will be making his first return to the ground since he was freed after 13 months.
“We have so many characters in our squad and even the younger guys have got a real resilience about them. They will relish going to Ibrox in front of 50,000 fans. Obviously we are on a good run and you could say the heat is on Rangers a wee bit. That is what the gaffer keeps telling us, don’t fear it but go and enjoy it. You don’t want to look back and say we were fearful in any game. We want to go and express ourselves and if we do that we know we have guys who can hurt Rangers. Not just their defence either but any defence.
“You could argue going into their backyard on equal points with the potential to go in front of them is a massive test. But you could argue the last time we played them when they could have gone 11 points clear was a massive test because you are saying maybe that would have been a bridge too far. You are always saying this is a test. If we win this, to maintain the momentum in the next again week will be just a big test. It is a week-by-week thing and everyone in football knows the importance of not getting ahead of yourself so I am not saying we are going to go and definitely beat them because it is a very difficult game.
“The more we win the more the momentum grows. Also the more we become a scalp. You can’t discount Falkirk in this title race, they are on a fabulous run as well. They have beaten Rangers and only lost a couple of games all season. From front to back they are good. Everyone is speaking about the two teams but you need to give Peter Houston credit as well. It is intriguing for the fans that we are all so tightly grouped together. From a neutral’s perspective it must be entertaining.”
McGregor’s entire senior career seems to have entertained him. With the exception of two long spells sidelined by cruciate ligament injuries. He may have endured a miserable time in his season at Ibrox, and he may have been dropped abruptly by the club. Yet, he has fondness for a time that allowed him to establish a firm friendship with daily travelling companion Lee Wallace.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of some good calls, coming from Cowdenbeath to St Mirren. From Arniston Rangers to Cowdenbeath. From St Mirren to Rangers. Rangers to Hibs. I’ve not had it bad all my career. I’ve had lots of ups. To be given a chance to play at Hibs at this stage of my career from where I started at 24, 25 still working in retail and playing part-time. To say I’ve been at St Mirren, Rangers, Hibs. There’s no negativity there at all. It’s fond memories. I’ll remember the year at Rangers although it never worked out the best for the team in terms of achieving what we wanted.
“I’m firmly focused on the new chapter. I’ve two years here and I do believe we have a strong enough team to win the league, go up and challenge when we go up in the Premiership. To help get Hibs up would be emotional… and to then get a few derbies, that would be another for the bucket list.”