STEVEN Whittaker's experience at Hibs must feel a bit like being invited to attend a great party but staying on to tidy up afterwards while everyone else gets their jackets and leaves.

While his contemporaries Ian Murray, Derek Riordan, Garry O'Connor, Gary Caldwell and Kevin Thomson have all abandoned the club in search of bigger clubs and bigger paypackets - with Scott Brown almost certain to follow them away in the summer - the 22-year-old, already the longest-serving member of the Easter Road first team squad by quite some distance, has uncomplainingly got on with the business of establishing himself as probably the pre-eminent right back in the Scottish game.

Yet the battle lines of any potential future transfer wrangle have already been drawn. Whittaker - who has a contract which runs until 2009 - was explicitly named by manager John Collins, along with Steven Fletcher and Lewis Stevenson, as one of those players the club simply could not countenance selling in the event of Brown's departure, but such words hardly constitute a watertight deterrent.

Whittaker accepts that Hibs will always be a "feeder club" for the likes of the Old Firm, or interested Premiership suitors such as Everton, but he hardly seems the type to be persuaded to take a page out of Willie Mackay's book of transfer requests.

"It is not about being ready to move to a bigger club," said Whittaker, who first encountered Thomson and Riordan as 13-year-olds with Hutcheson Vale Boys Club. "I am playing here each week and I have still got three or four years left on my contract, so a team will obviously have to pay money for me, and until that happens I will be a Hibs player until my contract runs out.

"I can't think oh, I want to move on' - because my contract states that I am a Hibs player for the next three or four seasons. So that is what I will be.

"As soon as money comes in it is a bit different," he added. "Hibs are always going to be a feeder club for the likes of Rangers and Celtic, or even clubs down south. There is always a step up from here and good players are always going to move on. I am sure Scott will do that soon and Kevin has already done that. I don't mind being in the background or not in the spotlight.

"If you are playing well people will always take notice and I don't think Tommo or Scott asked to be in the papers each week. But they made it clear that they wanted to move on to bigger and better things and who is to stop them doing it?"

Another glimpse of what Whittaker is missing came last week when he was omitted by Alex McLeish - the man in charge at Hibs when he originally signed as a 16-year-old - from the Scotland qualifying double-header with Georgia and Italy.

Whittaker earned 19 caps at Under-21 level, even causing a minor controversy when he was selected by Rainer Bonhof whilst actually still serving a suspension, and was named in the recent B squad for the match against Finland only to strain a hamstring and miss out.

Graeme Murty and Jackie McNamara are other options in the right full-back role, but Whittaker hopes, not without some justification, that he will make the step up sooner or later.

"I wasn't really expecting to be in it the squad," he said. "A lot of people have asked me if I was disappointed not to be in it, but I don't think disappointment is the right word. If I just keep playing well with Hibs I think my time will come. I just hope people will take notice of that and see that I am ready to make a step up."

Certainly the manner in which Brown settled into those lofty surroundings is hardly likely to put him off. "I am pleased for Scott, " said Whittaker. "He is one of my good mates, so it was great to see him get in there and take his chance. He deserves it, he has been playing well for Hibs. I spoke to him before and after he played in the Georgia game, and I know he was chuffed with that."

Whittaker, who had aspirations to become a PE teacher beforehe decided to leave schoolbefore his higher grades, is still waiting to reconvene his golf game with Thomson, Brown and Kevin McDonald, who is currently on-loan from Easter Road to Airdrie.

But this afternoon, of course, is all about the third Edinburgh derby of the season. The match not only provides Hibs with a chance to atone for their 3-2 defeat last time around, cutting the gap to Hearts to just two points with a game in hand, but with the CIS trophy to be paraded after thematch it is an opportunity to rub the visitors' noses in it.

As for the playing side, one of the most difficult things to counter is working out exactly who you are likely to be marking, given the Tynecastle side's ever-changing starting line-up.

"It chops and changes a little bit, doesn't it?" Whittaker said. "We watch videos and study the team that we are going to play before the game with the gaffer so you might have a rough idea, but it doesn't really matter. Obviously if they are playing in the SPL they are going to have some kind of qualities. It is about us, really. If we put in a good performance then I am sure we can win the game."

Whittaker, who has just one senior goal to his name, even almost had his own moment of glory in that last meeting, venturing forward late on to almost grab an equaliser.

"I hit both posts with one shot in the last game, when we were 3-2 down at Tynecastle," he said. "I smacked it at the near post, and it went right along the line, so I was absolutely gutted with that. It would have been nice if that had gone in; having not scored so far this season it would be a nice way to start."

Such a dearth of goals could be construed as something of an embarrassment for a player who was actually brought to the club as a freescoring playmaker before being converted to right back by Bobby Williamson.

Whittaker may be playing in front of an army of scouts each week, but it is nothing compared to the attentions of the Whittaker Family Hibs Supporters Club. The Bonnyrigg-born player's mother and father travel to each game - home and away - and have missed just five games in his five seasons in the first team.

"My parents have always helped carry me here and there and get me to training," Whittaker says. "My dad played football but not really to any high level, and he and my mum still don't miss a game. They stay overnight in Inverness before games up there, they absolutely love it. My mum always says you did all right son' but my dad is more likely to say you were a bit quiet today'."

He may have his quiet days, but Whittaker is definitely a player to shout about.