Training centre attracted Steven Whittaker back to Hibs

Hibs boss Neil Lennon has promised to help Steven Whittaker develop as a coach. Picture: SNS.
Hibs boss Neil Lennon has promised to help Steven Whittaker develop as a coach. Picture: SNS.
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A lot has changed at Hibernian since 
Steven Whittaker flew the coop, alighting first at Rangers and then Norwich City. When he left, a decade ago, the training academy at East Mains had just opened.

Designed to be a production line for young players full of potential, it has had the unintended consequence of helping attract back experienced, older ones. At least that’s one of the reasons cited by Whittaker, who has re-signed for Hibs on a three-year contract at the age of 33.

So yes, security is another incentive, as is a wish to develop as a coach – something manager Neil Lennon has promised to assist with.

Whittaker wouldn’t be drawn on a link with Hearts. The delay in joining Hibs – some have joked he was only 31 when negotiations began – was simply because he had taken advantage of a rare chance to spend time away with his family.

Things, he claimed, progressed quickly once talks began. “I had a couple of options down south but nothing that would take me away from this opportunity,” said Whittaker. “It’s great and I’m looking forward to doing a bit of coaching and getting involved with the younger teams as well. Hopefully I can pass on my experiences in the game.”

Asked what had changed since 2007, he replied, with reference to the well-appointed East Mains: “This place for a start. We used to meet at Easter Road and jump in the mini-bus and get told to where to drive to, or jump into your car and drive to training grounds all over the city.

“This is a more professional way of coming in and doing your work,” he added. “The young guys that have got this to come to, they should take full advantage of it. This had just opened as I left. I think I left at the end of the transfer window [in the summer of 2007] and it had opened that November.”

Not many players reach 33 having played for just three clubs. Whittaker has offered faithful, loyal service to Hibs, Rangers and Norwich City before, in the last two instances, things turned sour. There was a financial implosion at Ibrox. At Norwich he simply fell out of favour.

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Whittaker remains philosophical about both experiences. He sees no reason to provide further justification for how he departed Rangers, taking up the opportunity to leave as a free agent in 2012.

He and Steven Naismith, pictured, refused to have their contracts transferred from the old club to the newco.

It means some have attached extra significance to Hibs’ first trip to Ibrox, which comes as soon as the second league game of the season, on 12 August.

“Whatever reception I get, I won’t let it bother me,” Whittaker said. “I’m 33 now so I’ve experienced all the different ones, whether you’re cheered or booed. That’s part of football and you just have to get on with it. I’ve not given any thought to what kind of welcome I’ll get there. I’ll just be trying my best to win for Hibs, like the rest of the other boys. I just don’t want to let anyone down.

“Everyone has a different opinion of what happened and who was to blame for what,” he added. “As players we were paid to play football and that’s what we tried to concentrate on through the whole process. It was difficult at times but that’s all we knew.

“Steven [Naismith] and I wanted to play football. That was the be all and end all. It was a shame and no one saw it coming. We took the wage cuts, for example, to try and help everything come back together. We did our bit but people have different perceptions of that. We can’t change that. We just need to get on with it.”

Whatever happens then and in the future, Whittaker’s three-club CV will ideally stay that way. He has, he says, returned to Hibs with the intention of seeing out his career at Easter Road. He has enjoyed and sometimes endured a variety of experiences since leaving the club, shortly after lifting the League Cup against Kilmarnock.

Whittaker has since played in a Uefa Cup final, scoring a memorable solo goal in a quarter-final win in Portugal against Sporting Lisbon. He has also ticked off what features high in the list of many footballers’ ambitions: playing in the English Premier League.

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But things did take a downturn last season, after losing both his club and international place. “It was tough because it’s the first time in my career that I’ve not been playing consistently,” he said.

“I played a little bit when they got to the Premier League and then fell away. The manager [Alex Neil] wanted to go in a different direction with different players.

“It was difficult but I always had the mindset that it was my career and I couldn’t afford to go through the motions.

“I still had to go in and give my best. I had to keep myself in the best shape possible because even if you’re out in the wilderness your situation can change so quickly so you need to be ready.”

Whittaker certainly looks to have done that, meaning he comes into contention for Friday’s Betfred Cup trip to Dingwall to play Ross County. Less clear is in which position he might play. But versatility is one of his qualities and a major reason why Lennon pursued Whittaker for so long. Whether it’s left-back, right-back, midfield or centre-half, Hibs will know the worth of having such a fine player back.