DARREN McGREGOR is no stranger to the treatment table after enduring two devastating cruciate ligament injuries earlier in his career.
However, the Hibernian defender is adamant his latest fitness battle has been his most challenging to date.
The 34-year-old was withdrawn just 14 minutes into the Hibees’ Betfred Cup win over Morton in August after feeling a sharp pain around his pelvis. Nevertheless, the experienced stopper was certain that it was a fairly innocuous strain.
McGregor has nothing but praise for Hibs’ medical chief Nathan Ring, who deduced that he had a problem with his inguinal nerve, which runs into your groin, and placed him on a specially created fitness programme to strengthen the area.
However, Ring did not give McGregor a timeframe for his recovery and he confesses that sense of uncertainty was tortuous to deal with.
“I have dealt with injuries where there has been a set timescale: after four weeks you’ll be running, six weeks you can twist and turn, eight weeks is impact and so on,” he says.
“When you are given a timeframe you have something to work towards.
“But this was all about doing core stuff, the sheet that Nathan [Ring] wrote out with different exercises was half the size of a big table. I was putting all of my eggs in that one basket and if it didn’t work I didn’t know what the alternative would be, an injection, an op, I didn’t know.
“But Nathan never actually said to me when I would start to feel better again . . . I think my head would have exploded if I had thought I’d be out for three months for what was, at the time, just a pain in my abdomen!”
Asked whether the doubt made the absence more frustrating than his two previous serious knee injuries at St Mirren, McGregor said: “I think it did, 100 per cent.”
It would be fitting if, as expected, McGregor makes his return to the match-day squad against Rangers tonight, given he first felt the injury during the Hibees’ 6-1 humbling at Ibrox in August.
McGregor smiled ruefully: “I think it was getting run ragged at Ibrox that sent me over the edge!
During the last 15 minutes there was a slight awareness – but you always get tweaks and niggles and never pay much attention.
“I got treatment but the following week we played Morton and I miscontrolled a ball and felt a sharp pain. The next minute I went to play a diagonal pass and the pain went from 0 to 100 straight away.”
In what seems like a blink of the eye to McGregor, half of his campaign was wiped out.
While some players profess that maturity and experience makes those set-backs easier to deal with, the knowledge that he is in the Autumn on his career only made it more galling for McGregor.
He continued: “The older you get, the more you appreciate football and the career that you’ve got. When you are injured, it is stealing games from you.
“I was looking forward to the start of this season as we did well to get into the top six at the end of last season and I was enjoying the consistency of playing.
“The new season comes around and you have all these aspirations about doing well and then, before you know it, we are a few days away from January. That’s the most frustrating thing.”
The key challenge, McGregor contends, is not allowing that exasperation to leave the training ground with him.
He adds: “I’ve realised how to separate that and try and stay away from letting results or injuries dictate how you feel outside of the game. When you’ve got kids to deal with you’ve got to check yourself. It’s not your family’s fault.”
That philosophy is particularly pertinent given Darren and his partner, Erin, recently welcomed their third child, baby Ray, into the world.
With Max, 4, and Mila, 2, already Easter Road regulars, McGregor is determined to ensure they see daddy back to his best – even if, as Erin tells him, they couldn’t care less.
He smiled: “I’ve had a few sleepless nights since October 5 when Ray was born, he’s our third. It gives you perspective but also motivation to do well for them as well.
“They all love it. The wee man, Max, absolutely loves football. All he talks about is Hibees and we’ve got Ray a strip already.
“But I don’t want them to come to games and say ‘where’s daddy?’
“Mind you, Erin has said I shouldn’t be so stupid and that they enjoy coming whether I’m playing or not!”
***Darren McGregor was speaking at the latest SPFL Trust Festive Friends event. Find out more at spfltrust.org.uk/festivefriends***