David Gray admits tomorrow’s match against Dunfermline is the real acid test to determine whether the Hibs players have responded to Neil Lennon’s criticism of them last weekend.
The Easter Road side have been widely hailed for storming to a 3-1 demolition of Hearts in Wednesday’s Scottish Cup fifth-round replay, just four days after being publicly castigated by their manager in the aftermath of an underwhelming 1-1 draw away to Raith Rovers.
However, Gray noted that Lennon actually predicted a strong derby display during his well-documented outburst in Fife. It is games like tomorrow’s, at home to the Pars in the league, where the manager wants to see more purpose and passion from his team. Although Hibs are seven points clear at the top of the Championship, there is a widespread feeling that they should be a good bit further ahead.
Performances like Wednesday’s, when they were far too strong for a Hearts side placed fourth in the Premiership, suggest Hibs should be capable of routinely blowing away second-tier opponents. However, slip-ups in ten of their 24 league matches have kept the chasing pack close enough for discomfort and sparked Lennon’s outpouring of exasperation last weekend.
Gray admits that in order to truly satisfy the manager, Hibs must now replicate the approach they showed against Hearts when they host a mid-table Dunfermline side who have lost only one of their past 14 games in all competitions. “Derbies are different – the atmosphere and the occasion takes care of itself,” said Gray. “The manager said himself he wasn’t worried about the Hearts game because he knew that would take care of itself. The big one now is Dunfermline and we need to make sure we’re up for it. It shouldn’t be harder to get up for games like this because the league is our priority.
“Obviously it’s great to be in the Scottish Cup quarter-final but now we’re back to business against Dunfermline. That now becomes our biggest game of the season.”
Gray was encouraged that his team-mates were inspired rather than inhibited by their manager’s savage words last Saturday. “We were obviously disappointed with last Saturday because we missed a massive opportunity to stretch our lead at the top,” said the right-back. “It was good to have a game so quickly after Saturday because we were desperate to put things right. Everyone saw the manager’s comments, and I think he got what he wanted from the boys on Wednesday. The standard in training was really high earlier in the week and he got a reaction in the match.
“We started really well, and the atmosphere always helps in these type of occasions. We fully deserved the victory and it could have been even more in the end. Every single player played well which is a great situation. Performances like that can only give you confidence. We now need to make sure we take that into the Dunfermline game.”
Tomorrow’s match is followed by a midweek trip to St Mirren before attention can turn back to the Scottish Cup, with Championship rivals Ayr United due at Easter Road for a quarter-final clash in eight days’ time. Hibs are now potentially just 270 minutes away from retaining the trophy they famously won last May, and Gray, who scored the winner against Rangers in the final, admits his team see themselves as genuine contenders for glory even though the top three –Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers – remain in the tournament.
“If we play like we did against Hearts, we’ll be a match for anybody,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ve seen what Ayr are like because they’ve had two good results at Easter Road, so it’ll be a difficult game. It’s one our lads will fancy but we’ve got some big league games that we need to take care of before then.”
Gray and his colleagues once again got the chance to embark on a lap of honour round Easter Road while their supporters belted out a rousing rendition of Sunshine on Leith. The attendance of 20,205 was Hibs’ biggest home crowd since they were defeated 2-1 by Hearts in the Scottish Cup 23 years ago, and the captain admits to being humbled by the manner in which the fans have rallied behind their club over the last few years.
“The fans got a bit excited when the first goal went in but it was another great occasion for them,” he smiled, referring to a mini pitch invasion after Jason Cummings’ opening goal. “They were brilliant at Tynecastle in the first game and I thought they were even better on Wednesday. They’ve been fantastic since I’ve been at the club, turning out in their numbers and backing the team.”
Cummings, who was singled out by Lennon as one of those not at the races in the Raith match, responded with possibly his best performance yet for Hibs. The striker set his team on their way to victory with his fifth goal in six games against Hearts, who released him in his teens, and then set up Grant Holt for the second goal. “He’s got a wee habit of doing that against Hearts,” smiled Gray. “Hopefully he’s as good as that against Dunfermline.”
Lennon will be applying the same sentiment to all of his players.