As a centre-half, there’s one way to avoid an inevitably bruising tussle with Hearts centre forward Uche Ikpeazu – join the same team as him.
Surprisingly, Hibs defender Darren McGregor almost did. He could have been preparing to face his boyhood heroes on Sunday at Easter Road as opposed to steeling himself for a resumption of hostilities with Ikpeazu.
McGregor, who is set to play for Hibs until he is 37 after signing a new four-year deal, has revealed he entertained signing for Hearts prior to joining Rangers in 2014. The defender was out of contract at St Mirren and considering his options, one of which was joining Hibs’ greatest rivals.
He admits he was not thinking straight at the time, possibly due to a post-season trip to Ibiza with his then team-mates. But he did go as far as to head for talks with Tynecastle director of football Craig Levein and then manager Robbie Neilson.
“I had a hangover from Ibiza at the time! I spoke to them and they were very nice but nothing came of it,” said McGregor, who joined Hibs after just over a year at Ibrox.
“Ally McCoist phoned me so that changed everything. I’m a Hibs player and a Hibs fan and I’m thankful that I’m here at the club I supported as a boy. I’ve had a lot of bumps in the road but to be sat here at the age I am with the prospects I’ve got, I’m really happy.”
He was coy about what might have happened had McCoist not come in with a better offer. “It depends how much money they [Hearts] offered!” said McGregor. “It’s common knowledge that I spoke to them. I got a bit of a hard time from my pals but it was soon swept under the carpet.”
McGregor has never left anyone in any doubt where his loyalties lie. Now firmly established as a Hibs legend after his part in the 2016 Scottish Cup win, he has recently committed his long-term future to the club. The new deal he’s signed includes a requirement to act as a mentor to young players and promote Hibs in a positive light – something he says he does at every opportunity in any case.
If any youth signing wishes to look for an example, then there are few better than McGregor, who not too long ago was folding jeans in a branch of Xile clothing in Edinburgh. He did not turn full-time until well into his twenties.
He’s looking to make up for lost time at the other end of his career. Often now partaking in just one full training session per week, he is prudently managing a knee issue that once threatened his Easter Road future.
“It’s a stretch imagining that [playing at 37] just now,” he said. “I can understand why naysayers would say ‘37?’
“But I can only tell you how I feel and the way I am as a person, the way I approach every single day with my rehab and my prehab, my diet and just how I look after myself on and off the field. All these things are factors that are ingrained in me from a young age. I’ve not just flicked a switch six months ago and said ‘I’m going to be this person’,” he added. “I’ve been this way since I arrived here so I’m hoping the club have seen the good in me and that I have a lot to offer.”
He is certainly still up for the battle and impressed with his handling of Ikpeazu, Hearts’ main danger man, when Hibs won the last Edinburgh derby earlier this month at Tynecastle. McGregor admits he has met his match in a physical sense in Ikpeazu – but this does not count for everything. He and centre-half partner Paul Hanlon covered each other’s backs and were able to limit the damage the striker was able to inflict.
“You cannot deny he is a big boy and very, very strong,” said McGregor. “Going into the game there is some apprehension – you could argue, when he is planted and he is applying pressure he is probably the strongest guy in the league. You need to be a bit coy and sensible in these situations. There was a couple of times when I tried to wrestle him and 99 times out of a hundred I’d normally win but with the big guy, maybe not.
“When you are six foot three and sixteen and a half stone, you are going to be strong straight off the bat,” he continued. “But, added to that, it’s obviously all muscle as well. He is a handful and he has proved that. But again, I thought we dealt with that physical threat – not just from him but look at their team, they have a lot of physical boys from back to front. They have Berra, Souttar, Haring and Djoum is a big lad was well. But I thought we did well against them.”