Hibs defender Darren McGregor taps into personal experience to offer comfort to Kevin Nisbet
There was an out-pouring of public sympathy when news of his bereavement emerged in the aftermath of Hibs’ Scottish Cup semi-final defeat, while everyone at the Easter Road club has rallied round the summer signing. But it is Darren McGregor who may be best placed to help his young team-mate negotiate the emotional rollercoaster, having, sadly, been through the same experience.
“The only reason I felt I could speak with him quite openly was because I suffered something similar near the start of my professional career. I was 24 when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer so I can see a lot of parallels, with Nizzy being 23, and I know how he must be feeling.
“Sometimes, as young men, we do maybe mask our feelings but he sees Hibs as his sanctuary, somewhere he can come and forget about his troubles. So, I just said to him: ‘Look, I don’t want to make a big song and dance about it but I know what you are feeling now and how you will be feeling in the months to come because it all comes in different stages, so I will be here for you if you need to talk.
“I didn’t want to put any pressure on, I just wanted to let him know that I have suffered something similar and if he needs me I will be here. But I am pretty sure that every other guy in that dressing room will be the exact same and credit to Nizzy for the way he has acted throughout it all and how mature he has been. It has been really remarkable.”
When David Gray and McGregor were offered new four-year deals in 2019, as players and club ambassadors, there were many who questioned the logic of such lengthy contract extensions.
Both are heading towards the end of their playing careers and have been infrequent starters this season, mainly due to the form of the current backline, but their value off the park remains high and the veteran centre-back wishes he had had someone like that to lean on when he was going through his own loss.
“I think the reason I have reached out is because I never really had that. Although, I maybe never really looked for it. I was always quite a guarded person, even growing up. I tended to keep my emotions quite close to me and maybe, with hindsight, that maybe did hurt me by not dealing with it.
“It just depends on your character. I would never force Nizzy to talk I just wanted to let him know that I was here for him if he wants to.
“We are probably one of the first clubs in Scottish football to offer contracts like that and we [McGregor and Gray] were very thankful and grateful for the responsibilities that go with that, the mentoring and looking after the young boys and helping them develop. But we also truly feel that as footballers we still have a lot to give.”
On Sunday afternoon McGregor will step into the void left by Ryan Porteous, who is on Scotland U-21 duty, as Hibs take on Dundee in their final Betfred Cup group game, with a guaranteed spot in the knockout stages awaiting the winners. Ready to remind everyone of his worth in the team, he says the fact he can also offer support off it, shows how the overtly-old-school masculine psyche of the sport has advanced.
“It’s just about being a human being and recognising when someone is going through a tough time and had a bit of trauma in their lives; let them know you are there. Especially when you get older, there’s a duty of care for some of these younger guys. You remember what it was like to be 23 or 24 and not being sure where to turn. As long as he knows the support is there, you don’t need to shove it down anyone’s throats.”
Just as Nisbet has vowed to channel his grief into his play and has dedicated any future achievements to the dad he described as his hero, McGregor says that football was also his saviour.
“Massively, that’s your release! Any bad news, you can leave that outside and this is a sanctuary. So he comes in here and works his socks off every day and he has been rewarded with the amount of goals he has scored and, obviously, there is talk of a potential call-up for Scotland.
“For him, the main thing is to keep coming in and training well and his emotions might bubble up sometime in the near future or they might never bubble over, it depends how he takes it. But he knows that there are guys in the changing room looking out for him. There are many guys, me included, the manager, the backroom team who are all here to support him.
“I have said this could be the making of him. When you suffer trauma or experience really difficult times in your life, you can use it to motivate you and use it as an inspiration to go on and be successful, or you can let it destroy you. Knowing the character of Nizzy, I’m sure it will be the first one and he will use his dad as an inspiration and his passing as motivation to go on and do well in the rest of his career.”
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