The immediate over-riding emotion was one of bitter disappointment, the natural reaction of any professional football player after losing a game, particularly one in which they have run the opposition close.
But as Alan Stubbs’ players began to reflect on the 120-minute shift they had put in at Ibrox as the team coach headed back along the M8 to Edinburgh, there was plenty to convince them that, other than the result, there was little to be unhappy about.
Yes, they were out of the Petrofac Training Cup at the first time of asking, Nicky Law’s extra-time winner earning Rangers a second-round tie at home to Clyde, but on the evidence of Stubbs’ first competitive match as the Capital club’s new boss, those who were suggesting Hibs would be no more than also-rans in the Championship title race could well be re-assessing that evaluation.
Before a ball had been kicked, Ally McCoist’s side were being tipped to continue their seemingly relentless march towards a top-flight return, with Hearts seen as possibly their only genuine challengers, while Hibs could hope for only third place at best by virtue of the summer of upheaval which has taken place following the Easter Road club’s relegation.
Stubbs, however, has insisted much progress has been made in the short period since he replaced the sacked Terry Butcher and inherited a threadbare and demoralised squad, one which few regarded as capable of mounting a sustained challenge for promotion.
Only four new players have, as yet, been signed to replace the 16 who have left which, naturally, has led many to question if Stubbs, despite his public declaration of being happy to go with what he’s got at present, has the resources at his disposal not only to negotiate the rigours of the season ahead but to be there when the leading clubs hit the final straight.
More than three weeks of the summer transfer window remain for Stubbs to further strengthen his pool of players – a task he is actively pursuing – but as far as one of the few new arrivals, David Gray, is concerned, there is already plenty of room for optimism. The concensus in the away dressing-room at Ibrox was that had it not been for referee John Beaton’s harsh red card for Danny Handling only a few minutes after he had cancelled out Lewis Macleod’s early opener, Hibs would have enjoyed a notable victory.
Right-back Gray said: “We were all disappointed, you always are after losing, but when you look at the game itself there are a lot of positives for us to take from it. It’s hard to judge from pre-season games, but we felt going into the game we had nothing to fear although we knew it would be a test to see if we could play the way we want to and had been in pre-season.
“I think we did that and I thought Rangers got a bit of a shock to see how well we were passing the ball. The lads take great credit because they wanted to get on the ball and while it took us a wee bit to get our game going I think we dominated.
“Rangers had the early momentum, they started quite well and I think the goal gave us that little smack to get going. Even going in 1-0 down at half-time we knew we were well in the game and knew the next goal was going to be important. We came back out, started really well, put them on the back foot, created a number of chances and I felt there was only one team going to win it.”
Sam Stanton had already fluffed one great opening before Handling was the first to react after Ian Black had failed to control Gray’s cross, the 20-year-old steering a low shot beyond Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell. Farid El Alagui then hooked a shot over before timing his run perfectly to meet an Alex Harris corner only to see his header miss the target by inches as the rumblings of discontent among the home support grew by the minute.
But then came that fateful moment, Handling taking down ex-Hearts winger David Templeton from behind, leaving his team-mates to play out the final 11 minutes and the 30 of extra time a man short.
It was a challenge which proved just too much as Law made the Glasgow side’s numerical superiority count.
Stubbs branded Beaton’s decision “very harsh”, insisting a yellow card would have been enough for most referees and Gray said: “Danny doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body so I’d be very surprised if he’s done anything malicious.
“He’d done well to get our goal, a really sharp finish and I just think he was trying to win the ball back. A wee while earlier he’d shown just how desperate he was to do that, tracking back from inside Rangers’ half to intercept a cross at the edge of our penalty box.
“It wouldn’t be like Danny to put in a dangerous tackle, he’s not like that. He was obviously really disappointed. He felt he had let the rest of us down.”
Extra time was probably not what Stubbs would have wanted with players still putting the finishing touches to their match fitness but, Gray insisted, those 30 minutes could stand the Easter Road players in good stead as they approach Saturday’s opening league clash with Livingston.
He said: “As long as we recover properly, which I am sure we will do, I don’t think it will have done us any harm. We’ve got another 120 minutes into us, good preparation and a little bit of extra fitness from a competitive game rather than a friendly.
“It’s something for us to build on. The result wasn’t great, but we’ll be looking to put on another performance like it on Saturday – when Livingston will be treated with every bit as much respect as Rangers – and hopefully kick off the season with three points.”
Gray was not party to the shambolic ending to last season which left Hibs fans in despair, but the 26-year-old hopes the 1,000 or so supporters who were at Ibrox and the armchair followers who watched the match on television will have seen sufficient to persuade them that the future can be approached not with trepidation but hope and optimism.
He said: “The fans at Ibrox were fantastic throughout the game. They stayed right behind us to the end and clapped us off the pitch. That was great for us and hopefully we can keep them happy, push on and get them back supporting us through the season.”