Hibs’ Steven Whittaker explains the positional switch that can prolong his career
When exactly that will be is a moot point.
His Hibs contract ends this summer. If he wishes to play on, as he says he does, it might be at Easter Road or it might not. That’s something to be decided in the near future. There have been no talks yet.
Whittaker’s recent re-emergence in a variety of positions suggests these might begin sooner rather than later. There have been fewer occasions recently when he hasn’t been stripped. Nevertheless, he will still prove useful by helping manager Jack Ross analyse games from a seat in the stand.
Whittaker is currently studying for his A licence coaching badge and is also finishing an applied management course at Napier University, along with Darren McGregor and David Gray. But as with his two team-mates, he feels he still has something to give on the pitch. This has been amply demonstrated in recent weeks.
Whittaker has been an integral part of the side at centre half or centre midfield, where he has operated just in front of the back four. In his most recent outing, Sunday’s 4-1 win over BSC Glasgow in the Scottish Cup, he fulfilled both roles having been switched back to centre half at half time.
He’s been a steadying influence throughout this year to date since being brought back into the side for the first game after the winter break when Hibs drew 2-2 with Dundee United in the Scottish Cup. His performance in the replay belied his age as he scampered forward to come close to scoring on two occasions.
“I wasn’t meant to do that, as you could see when I got in there and didn’t score!” he said. “It was just anticipation. I just read the situation and managed to intercept it. If the opportunities come, you are going to [try to] take them.”
Lean and fit, he is not instantly recognisable as the team’s veteran. One position where he accepts he must bow to his advancing years is full back. He played there often in his career, for club as well as country, including as recently as earlier this season under Paul Heckingbottom. He quickly realised it’s a younger man’s game now.
“That was mainly because of injuries with Dave [Gray] and Tom [James],” Whittaker recalled.
“I don’t really see myself as a right back at the stage of my career I’m at, I really need to play a more central role these days.
“I got the chance to play at centre back against Celtic when I came on [for Adam Jackson] and did OK and then I’ve played centre midfield now. I think that’s where I need to play going forward, you get a little bit more protection in the central areas of the park. Hopefully I can continue doing what I’m doing at the minute.”
Whittaker is now firmly back in Jack’s thoughts. The coaching team’s loss is the first-team’s gain and he’s likely to feature this evening against Ross County. The manager must then decide whether Whittaker – who turns 36 in June – can play for the third time in a week against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
The only doubt Ross might have will be down to the artificial surface. Whittaker feels more than capable otherwise. He cites Kenny Miller, who has recently retired at the age of 40, and David Weir, who played alongside Whittaker at Rangers at 41, as examples of those who have enjoyed extended careers at the top.
He’s alert, too, to the case of former Hibs team-mate Kevin Thomson, who was forced to call it a day four years ago at the age of 31. Whittaker wants to enjoy it while he still can. If that means leaving Hibs, where he re-signed in 2017, then so be it.
“Some struggle with injuries,” he said. “Look at Kenny Miller who has just retired. He is 40. David Weir, who I played with at Rangers, played until he was 40. Age is but a number. The body will tell you when it is time to call it a day.
“I’m still covering good distance,” he added. “My body is feeling OK. It maybe takes you a day or so to recover but I still feel like I’m in good enough shape to do a job for someone.”