STEVEN WHITTAKER dreamed of saying an emotional farewell in front of a sea of green.
Instead, his Hibernian career ended with a flash of red.
But the Easter Road hero insists that is a minor regret in an unforgettable decade with the capital club.
And he has left the door open to a third stint when he finally transitions into coaching.
Whittaker, 36 next month, will leave Hibs at the end of the week after it was confirmed the he will not be offered a new deal.
He racked up 239 appearances for the Hibees, was a mainstay of their ‘Golden Generation’ alongside the likes of Scott Brown, Steven Fletcher and Kevin Thomson, and lifted the 2007 League Cup.
However, the Covid-19 crisis meant he was denied the opportunity to lap up the adulation of the Hibs fans one last time, with his final outing actually coming in a 3-1 defeat against Aberdeen in March – in which he was sent off.
He said: “It would have been nice to play in front of a packed Easter Road for the last few games and get the opportunity to say a proper goodbye after so many seasons.
“I didn’t know that my last game for Hibs was actually going to be my last game for Hibs. No-one did.
“Knowing that I didn’t have a contract for the following season, I think I would have appreciated the run-in that bit more and really soaked up being a Hibs player. That would have been special.”
With 31 caps for Scotland, a Uefa Cup final with Rangers and a stint in the English Premier League with Norwich City under his belt, Whittaker’s pedigree is not in question.
And, barring that blip at Pittodrie, Whittaker has proved since the turn of the year that the legs are also still willing, turning in a string of fine displays as a central midfielder.
He intends to carry on that momentum and continue playing next season, insisting the thrill of battle is impossible to replicate.
Whittaker continued: “I felt like I was capable of coming in to the Hibs side and contributing from the turn of the year – and I’m confident that’s something I can take into next season.
“I’d like to play on for as long as I can and build on the momentum that I was building. If there are opportunities for me, then I would definitely be open to them.
“I’m feeling really good, fit and I still have that drive and hunger to go out and compete. That’s what I would miss more than anything; the chance to step on to the pitch and match up against another team, win your battles and get three points.
“I can be a little more patient and, honestly, part of me is quite excited by the blank page in front of me.”
Although far from ready to hang up his boots, Whittaker is in no doubt that he wants to pursue a career in the dugout when that day comes.
He has completed an applied management course at Napier University, only has his final assessments to pass in order to attain his Uefa ‘A’ coaching license and has aided the last two Hibs managers, Paul Heckingbottom and Jack Ross, behind the scenes.
However, it was Whittaker’s stint as part of the Hibees’ interim coaching team, alongside Eddie May and Grant Murray, following the departure of Heckingbottom in November that truly whet his appetite.
The fact he helped to mastermind a 4-1 win over St Johnstone didn’t hurt, either.
He added: “Helping Eddie [May] with the preparation for the game up at St Johnstone is something that really stands out. I really enjoyed that couple of weeks.
“To be in there, part of the discussions and seeing how things worked in the run-up to a Premiership game was fantastic.
“I’ve always appreciated the coaching side of things and the thought process that goes into sessions – but being on the front-line and having input into the end product was really enjoyable.
“It just cemented that feeling of ‘yes, this is something I want to do when I stop playing’.”
But will that coaching career bring him back to where his football journey started?
Hibs sporting director Graeme Mathie certainly left that door wide open this week, stating ‘it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back at Easter Road in some capacity in the future’.
Whittaker smiled: “It was nice of the club to say that. We have been good to each other over the years and they’ll always have a special place in my heart. Much like Graeme [Mathie] suggested, I would never say never.
“If the opportunity arises to work with Hibs again, and it suits all parties, then I’d definitely come back again.”