It wasn’t the ending he had envisaged. Stranded at home as the last few weeks and months of his Hibs contract ran down, Steven Whittaker has been denied the Easter Road send off he was hoping for.
He has spent the past three seasons back at the club where his professional career kicked off, but all good things come to an end and with his deal up, his only regret is the chance the coronavirus pandemic denied him of adding to his tally of appearances and the opportunity to say goodbye and thank you.
“I would have liked to play at Easter Road again before leaving but all this stopped that from happening,” said the fairly laid-back Whittaker, admitting he does feel slightly short-changed by circumstance. “I was getting back in the team but they say you never know when your last game will be and that was the case here. It would have been nice to say a proper goodbye and thank you to the fans, in what you knew would be your final game at Easter Road for Hibs, but I missed out on that.”
In fact his last run out in Leith was back in February and his last start for the team came on the road, at Pittodrie, where he marked the occasion with a 55th-minute sending off.
Half-a-career at Hibs
“That’s 20 years I have been playing and 10 years of that has been at Hibs so they have been a massive part of my career, developing me first and foremost and then giving me the opportunity to go back there in my twilight years. I have had great support from the club and the fans and it would have been nice to thank them.
“I had been in and out the team a little bit, but I had been put back into the team and I felt I was up to speed and doing well. I really felt I was going to have a strong finish to the season.
“It would have been nice to get in a few more games at Easter Road and it is a shame that was taken away from me.”
But it has given him a desire to get more game time under his belt before he even contemplates the big switch from playing to coaching or management.
Assessing his options
“Getting back in the team there and having that little spell, I was buzzing to be back playing again for Hibs. I still feel I have a lot to give as a player. I was more than holding my own in that central midfield role and I will have to assess my options for when football gets back to some kind of normality. I want to still play and I still have plenty in the tank so we will see how it plays out and what all my options are.”
Despite the fact he turns 36 in June, he remains in good shape thanks to sensible living and the kind of professional approach that earned him the respect of managers and team-mates.
Keeping in shape
“It all comes down to your attitude to your work. I have always worked hard throughout my career, to be the best that I can be, That’s never left me throughout the 20 years I’ve played.
“This is going to be a long break and I am fully aware that I need to stay on top of my fitness and make sure I am ready if I do get the opportunity to go and play again.”
There was some speculation that Hibs could be his swansong and the next phase of his career would involve coaching. He hopes that day will come, having tucked his B Licence under his belt and awaiting a date for next month’s postponed A Licence assessment. He was also one of several Hibs veterans who tackled a new football management course at Napier University to shine some light on what he can expect from that job away from the training pitch.
View on courses
“I found it all very intriguing and it is something I hope will be useful down the line but I feel I can still offer something on the pitch.
“I want to keep playing at the highest level. I have had a few conversations, and there is interest south of the border and up here, but it is early days yet but I need to weigh up the best opportunities of playing, first and foremost, and then, alongside that, depending on the stature of the club, I might look at the coaching aspect as well.”
When he hangs up his boots he says there are many examples of quality management he can tap into from his own career, dating all the way back to his early days at Hibs, coming through the ranks with the likes of Kevin Thomson and Scott Brown, among many, many more.
Brown is still as driven as Whittaker to keep his playing days going, possibly driven by the fact that injuries forced their pal into retirement at 31. “Yeah, it is a common statement from retired players, they tell you to play as long as you can, because you will miss it when it is over.”
What he can still offer
Whittaker believes there is merit in adding his kind of experience to a playing squad. “Well, I’m hoping so!” said the former Rangers and Norwich player. “I think the older you get the more you focus on everyone else’s game as well as your own. You understand the game a little bit more.
“The experiences you’ve had in certain situations, mean you can help other players and that is something I certainly did at Hibs, during the past three years. I enjoyed helping them with their game as well as, obviously, trying to do my bit as well.”
It was also a case of giving something back. In his early days at Easter Road there was a plethora of seasoned stars who could advise and lead by example. And even when Whittaker and his fellow starlets took over the team, there was still space for the experience of guys like Gary Smith and Stephen Glass.
Those wise old heads
“It is good to have older pros and a mix of different characters throughout your squad. We had guys helping us when we came through at Hibs and it wasn’t just Gary and Stephen. When I was still trying to break into the team, there were guys like Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy and Matthias Jack and people like that.
“Paul Fenwick was another and Mixu Paatelainen and those were the characters who looked after all the young boys coming through and made sure we knew what kind of effort had to be put in to be a success. It was great to have those figures to look up to. Then, when we were good enough to get in the first team we still had guys like Gary and Stephen around to help steer us and make sure the motivation and energy was channelled in the right direction.”
Still going in the right direction, Whittaker may not know the next destination yet, but he knows he isn’t ready to finish the journey.