DARREN McGREGOR knows how it feels to bottle up emotions following a personal tragedy; to remain the strong, silent type in the face of harrowing loss.
The Hibernian stalwart was just 25 years of age when his father, Ian, died following a brave battle with terminal lung cancer.
McGregor, who had only recently gone full-time after joining St Mirren from Cowdenbeath, chose to treat football as a sanctuary.
He did not turn to his colleagues for support or guidance. After all, exposing such raw emotions was not always the done thing in dressing rooms and he was a more reserved character at the time.
That experience informed his reaction when current teammate Kevin Nisbet endured similar heartbreak.
McGregor was among the first to offer his support to Nisbet when his dad, Thomas, succumbed to liver cancer last month. He was not overbearing or demanding. It was a simple word in the ear: if he needed to talk, McGregor was there.
“The only reason I felt I could speak with Nizzy quite openly was that I suffered something similar near the start of my professional career,” said McGregor. “My dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer so I saw a lot of parallels.
“I know how he must be feeling. Sometimes, as young men, we mask our feelings and 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 and how you will be feeling in the months to come – because it all comes in different stages – so I will be here if you need to talk.’
“I think the reason I reached out is that I never really had that. 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 hurt me.”
Much as McGregor continued to play for St Mirren almost 10 years ago – fans none the wiser to the trauma he was enduring – Nisbet lined up against Hearts in the Scottish Cup semi-final just three days after Thomas’ passing.
Nisbet’s overall performance, given the circumstances, was laudable, albeit he missed a crucial extra-time penalty as Hibs ultimately lost out 2-1 at Hampden.
Nevertheless, McGregor believes the fortitude shown by the former Dunfermline striker was incredible and has no doubt he will emerge stronger from one of the most challenging, formative events a young man can go through.
“It spoke volumes for Nizzy as a person that he stepped up,” continued McGregor. “A lot of players would have chosen not to even play that game, such a high-stakes game with so much on the line.
“But it was one of his dad’s wishes that he went on to play it.
“Credit to Nizzy for the way he has acted throughout this all and how mature he has been. It has been really remarkable.”
In hindsight, that Edinburgh derby at Hampden was one laden with tragedy.
News broke at half-time that former Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas had died at the age of 36 after contracting Motor Neurone Disease.
Although synonymous with the Jambos, the news hit Hibs legend McGregor hard, having grown close to ‘big Zal’ during a year spent together at Rangers.
He prefers to remember Zaliukas’ playful personality and the incessant ear flicks, but he cannot help but think back to the early signs of a brutal, debilitating illness.
“Big Zal and I spent a year together and, of all the players at Rangers, he was one of the closest to me,” added McGregor. “We used to play a two-touch game and if you lost the ball you’d get your ear flicked. So I was getting my ear flicked by Zal about 15 times a day! He had a brilliant sense of humour.
“To die at the age of 36 – a year older than me – can’t help but put things in perspective.
“I remember at Rangers, he had something wrong with his right hand. He was incapable of lifting things and he had a bit of muscle wastage in between his thumb and forefinger.
“So he was obviously dealing with that at the time and I never knew, despite us being very close. It was clearly something very personal to him.
“It’s a lesson that we should all appreciate life, what you have and try to be happy on a day to day basis.”
That call to cherish each moment is echoed in McGregor’s approach to football.
The form of Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon this term has seen the 35-year-old reduced to the role of a bit-part player, making just the appearances – all in the Betfred Cup – despite being fully fit and ready to play.
He will, however, be handed an opportunity to shine against Dundee this afternoon as, as he grows conscious of the ticking clock on his career, he intends to grasp it
McGregor added: “I think you appreciate it more the older you get – just pulling on that jersey. It means the world to me and if these are the games I get to play in, then so be it.”