DARREN McGregor spent his formative years in football as a star-struck Hibs supporter marvelling at the skills of his hero Franck Sauzee.
Tonight at Ibrox, the born- and-bred fan of the Easter Road club expects to hear some less than complimentary comments aimed at him from his friends who continue to follow them home and away.
McGregor is poised to make his competitive debut for Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup first-round tie against Hibs, a contest which will also act as an early indicator of both teams’ prospects of success in an intriguing Championship title race this season. The 28-year-old former Cowdenbeath and St Mirren defender is hopeful Hibs can recover from the shock of their relegation from the top flight but any goodwill he feels towards them will be placed firmly on hold this evening.
“I don’t know how many fans Hibs are bringing through,” said McGregor. “But I’d assume my pals will be in the away section. I’ll probably hear a few abusive shouts of ‘McGregor’ accompanied by four-letter words. I’m from Leith, so I grew up a Hibs fan and went to games regularly until I started playing every week myself. I looked up to guys like Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy who were fantastic.
“Sauzee played in my position and his elegance and grace on the ball were something you don’t see very often in Scottish football. I continued to follow Hibs after that, although it’s tailed off a bit since I got older and played senior football. But I still always look out for their results.
“I hope they do well, but now that we are in the same division this season, I obviously hope Rangers beat them. Once you cross that line, you’ve got the blinkers on. All I’m concerned about [tonight] is helping Rangers get the clean sheet which will help us win the tie.
“It’s a massive game for us as it will set a benchmark for the season if we can perform well. If we can beat Hibs and then win again in the opening league game against Hearts on Sunday, it could set down a good marker for the season.”
McGregor, who was playing junior football for Arniston Rangers just six years ago, admits he is still struggling to take on board the significance of his late-blooming career move to Rangers. “I was speaking to my girlfriend about it the other night and although we agreed it has sunk in to an extent, it still isn’t at the forefront of my mind,” he said. “I’ve put it away on a shelf until the end of the season, because if I was thinking about the magnitude of everything just now, it would be too much for me to digest.
“I will put the blinkers on and focus on my strengths and what I can bring to the team. There are a great set of guys here, with no egos. No-one in the dressing room is big-time, it’s a great environment to be in.
“The level of the club and the expectation levels are higher than I’m used to, but if we can get on with winning games we’ll keep everyone happy.
“I think it first sunk in that I was a Rangers player when we were travelling up to play Buckie Thistle in our first pre-season game last month. I didn’t know that before every game they play Simply The Best before the bus pulls in at the ground to get everyone going. “I was half-sleeping and woke up to Simply The Best. It was a surreal moment that will live with me. It was amazing. That was the moment I thought ‘I am a Rangers player now’ and it’s obviously a tradition the gaffer has been through himself. Hopefully I can make a difference here and be remembered in a good light.”
Rangers have yet to win the Challenge Cup during their time outside Scottish football’s top flight, having been knocked out in the last eight by Queen of the South two years ago and then beaten in the final by Raith Rovers at Easter Road last season.
Manager Ally McCoist is keen to claim the silverware at the third attempt, albeit it is not a priority. “We want to do well in every cup competition,” said McCoist. “The final against Raith was a major disappointment because we didn’t play well on the day. So we want to win it this time. But getting out of the Championship and into the Premiership will be the most important thing for us. We need to do that.”
McCoist is looking forward to renewing his relationship with new Hibs manager Alan Stubbs, having crossed swords with the former Celtic defender during their playing days. “I’ve always got on well with Alan,” added McCoist. “He is a great lad, just a solid man. I have a really healthy respect for him. I played against him numerous times, both for Rangers and when I was at Kilmarnock. He was one of those guys you played against who you quickly had a fair idea would go into coaching or management. He was very well respected down at Everton and it was just a matter of time before he took his first steps as a manager. I don’t have any doubts he will do really well at Hibs.”
l Tickets for tonight’s Petrofac Training Cup tie at Ibrox are on general sale, priced £21 (adult), £15 (concession) and £5 (junior) with pay-at-the-gate facilities in the Copland Road Stand on the night.