DESPITE being named Rangers’ Player of the Year last season Darren McGregor was deemed surplus to requirements by new Ibrox manager, Mark Warburton.
The player, who signed a two-year-deal with Hibs yesterday, bears no grudges, grateful for the honesty that allowed him to move on in the hope of securing first-team football elsewhere, while his new coach, Alan Stubbs, was delighted to swoop in and pick up a player he rates highly on a free transfer.
The Easter Road side have been keen to enhance their defensive options for a while and yesterday Stubbs was happy to wax lyrical about the attributes he believes the 30-year-old brings to his squad.
“Darren is aggressive, very strong, athletic and one-versus-one he is very good. In today’s game we always look at the ball-playing centre-backs but you can never have enough good defenders in your team,” said Stubbs.
“I’ve got to say I was surprised he became available. It wasn’t until around teatime on Monday that we were aware something was going on. Then once we had heard that Darren had been released, we made our intentions known to his representatives. We were in there straight away to try to get his services because we know he is a quality player.”
Both Stubbs and McGregor were at pains to point out that nothing had been discussed prior to the player agreeing a way out of Ibrox and the uninspiring promise of a season on the sidelines. Even as he watched the match between the teams on Sunday, the player said there was no inkling of what would ultimately unfold.
All he knew was that having sat down to discuss his options with Warburton and Ibrox assistant David Weir, it was clear that his best chance of regular football lay outwith Govan.
In a Rangers team that failed to impress last term, McGregor was one of the very few who earned plaudits. He made 53 appearances. But since the summer managerial switch, he has failed to feature, kept out of the side by Rob Kiernan and Danny Wilson, and after clear-the-air talks the defender was allowed to leave by mutual consent, offering Stubbs the chance to make his move.
“Football is a game of opinions,” said McGregor as he was paraded at Hibs’ East Mains training centre. “One manager will like you for a certain aspect of your game, another might not. That’s the same in any walk of life. I can only thank Mark Warburton for being straight with me. A lot of people might think I got a bit of a raw deal but I commend the gaffer’s honesty.
“It was hard leaving Rangers. It’s a good club with really good people. It’s like leaving family members behind, because you do build up a rapport with them, but football is very cut-throat and I need to move on to new objectives now.”
His primary objective remains the same as it was as he prepared for the new Championship campaign with Rangers. He wants to win promotion back to the Premiership. But having switched teams he will first have to help his new colleagues claw back the six-point advantage his former employers have already amassed in the league standings. Having knocked back interest from top-tier clubs to complete his Hibs deal, he has faith in the club’s ability to realise its ambitions.
“Rangers have very good players in good areas but so have Hibs,” he said. “We have a talented team, there are a lot of legs in the Hibs team and I do genuinely think that we can challenge Rangers for the Championship title. Rangers are the favourites and rightly so but Hibs have a team here who are capable of going up as champions.”
It wasn’t the way he envisioned this season but, helping his boyhood favourites back to the top flight would be the stuff of dreams for a player who grew up in Leith and admits he would have jumped at the opportunity to sign for Hibs as a kid, if only they had shown an interest then.
Instead he played for Leith Athletic and settled for watching heroes like Franck Sauzee, Russell Latapy and Mixu Paatelainen strut their stuff on the pitch. Then, when he combined sales work in a capital clothes shop and a part-time playing career with Cowdenbeath he contented himself with selling all the latest gear to up and coming starlets such as Scott Brown, Derek Riordan and Steven Whittaker. But having bided his time, McGregor could make his Hibs debut tonight, against Stranraer, in the League Cup.
“It’s been the team I supported all my days and dreamed of joining,” he added. “I never thought it would happen when I was down Leith Links playing for Leith Athletic under-12s! It has been a long old road with plenty of ups and downs, but I appreciate it all the more now. I am lucky to have been given this opportunity to play for Hibs, the club that I have supported all my life. I just want to repay their faith in me.”
James Keatings could also make his first competitive Hibs appearance tonight, having finally recovered from a hamstring injury which has delayed his debut following his switch from capital rivals Hearts.