SCOTT BROWN, Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor often occupied the limelight in Hibernian’s golden generation.
But former captain Ian Murray reckons Steven Whittaker was the trailblazer who paved the way for the talented teenagers to emerge at Easter Road.
Monday represented the end of an era when it was confirmed that the 35-year-old would be leaving the Hibees when his deal expires, bringing the curtain down on two stints in Leith totalling 239 appearances.
Whittaker came through the youth ranks at Hibs and made his debut in May 2002 – before the talent behind him in the pipeline became clear. The likes of Allan Dempsie, Derek Townsley and Jan Matyus were among his first teammates.
He went on to be a key part of Tony Mowbray’s swash-buckling young squad before lifting the 2007 League Cup under John Collins.
Murray, already a mainstay when Whittaker made his bow, knew something special was brewing.
He recalled: “It’s fair to say that Garry [O’Connor], Derek [Riordan] and Scott Brown took a lot of the shine away from the rest of that group of players and got plenty of attention.
“The biggest compliment I can give to Steven is that his teammates never thought that.
“We knew how valuable he was to the side, how good he was and what he brought to the table, as a player and a character.
“Even from a young age I would look around and think ‘yeah, he’s a guy we need in the starting line-up’. You knew he would fight for you.
“He actually came into the side a little bit earlier than a lot of people realise – before Derek, Kevin [Thomson] and Scott – and didn’t walk into a particularly good Hibs side at the time.
“Circumstances dictated that he got an opportunity but he still had to step up to the mark and he was a really solid right-back.”
Whittaker returned to his first club in July 2017 a very different player. Not as quick or dynamic, but with 31 caps for Scotland and successful spells with Rangers and Norwich City under his belt.
Injuries repeatedly halted his progress, limiting him to 67 outings in three years, but he appeared reinvigorated after turning in a series of fine displays in central midfield prior to the Covid-19 outbreak halting football.
If not for the uncertainty crippling the game at the moment, that may have proved enough to earn an extended deal. Regardless, Murray has scoffed at the notion that Whittaker’s return was a failure.
He continued: “I don’t think there’s any doubt Steven has had a positive impact.
“His quality and professionalism rubs off on everyone around him. I’ve seen that first-hand.
“He is a steely, determined character. That showed when he made a big move to Rangers, then went through all the financial problems there, and still played in the Premier League with Norwich. He is focused and believes in himself.
“Sadly for Steven, I think circumstances have dictated that his time has come to an end, because I know just how highly he is valued at Hibs.”
The club statement announcing Whittaker’s impending departure left the door clearly ajar, with sporting director Graeme Mathie noting ‘it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back at Easter Road in some capacity in the future’.
The veteran has been studying for his coaching badges, worked with Hibs’ youth players and even aided boss Jack Ross at points during the 2020/21 campaign.
Murray, however, reckons Whittaker will have no shortage of opportunities.
He added: “The next move will be entirely up to Steven. He may still have aspirations to keep playing, he may already want to go in to coaching or management.
“Without being disrespectful to Hibs, maybe Steven even has his eyes on something bigger in the long term if he goes into coaching.
“This will be a strange time for him but whatever decision he does make, I’ve no doubt he will make a success of it.”
On Whittaker’s Easter Road legacy, Murray, who also joined Rangers from Hibs to later return, added: “I’m sure the majority of – if not all – Hibs fans will remember Whitty fondly.
“If there’s a Hibs fan out there who still holds a grudge for going to Rangers then that would be very silly.”