He’s only been at Easter Road a little more than seven months, but already it feels as if David Gray is in with the bricks.
As Alan Stubbs’ first signing, the 26-year-old has watched from close-quarters as the new head coach has rebuilt a club wrecked by the shock of relegation, lifting the shattered confidence of those who remained, bringing in a raft of new faces, introducing an entertaining brand of football, restoring pride and putting a smile back on the fans’ faces.
It very much remains a work in progress with the primary objective still being immediate promotion back to the Premiership – which will most likely have to be achieved via the play-offs given Capital rivals Hearts seemingly unassailable lead at the head of the Championship table – but as far as Gray is concerned, Stubbs has already proved an overwhelming success.
Admitting the scenario he encountered on signing a two-year deal may have made some players think again, Gray insisted he had no second thoughts as he prepared to return home to Scotland following eight years south of the Border with Crewe, Plymouth, Preston, Stevenage, Burton and Manchester United as a youngster.
He said: “It didn’t take too much to convince me in terms of the club itself. It’s a massive club and I’ve said many times we should not be in the league we are at the minute. Rangers would say the same, as would Hearts. They are all massive clubs, in Scotland’s top four or five, so that did not really come into it for me.
“I knew that with the right people in charge, with the right people coming in, it would be a really good club to come to. But it was always going to be a rebuild and I was delighted to be part of it. To be the first signing was a big thing for me. I was out of contract trying to secure a club and when I learned there was interest from Hibs I was desperate to come here and I’ve been delighted ever since.”
Being Edinburgh-born, Gray obviously knew of the potential at a club, where it has been repeatedly pointed out everything is in place in terms of stadium, training centre and fanbase but, he revealed, he was just as impressed in his first meeting with Stubbs.
He said: “The manager has played at the highest level, he’s a defender the same as myself and expects high standards. Having spoken to him, I knew he was going to be very successful. He had that aura and determination about him that he is going to make it work and that’s what is happening. The hard work put in at the start of the season is showing now.”
Farid El Alagui, Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and Liam Fontaine and then Dominique Malonga joined Gray at East Mains, the squad further strengthened during the January transfer window with Martin Boyle, Tomas Cerny, Keith Watson, Franck Dja Djedje and Fraser Fyvie all arriving to find a team which had started the season unsure of itself now battling it out with Rangers for second place in the table.
Again, Gray insisted, that’s a measure of Stubbs’ blueprint, the former Celtic and Everton star rigidly sticking to his declaration he’d be signing quality over quantity and wouldn’t be panicked into simply making signings for the sake of it.
The right back said: “It’s all been well-documented – a lot of players had left the club early on, going as soon as the season finished after relegation.
“It does take time to rebuild, to get over the shock of what had happened then getting used to the fact you are playing against teams in the Championship that are coming to Easter Road desperate to beat you. You have to get your head round the expectation level that people are expecting you to win all the time.
“Results earlier in the season perhaps reflected that – definitely the draws we had at home. Had we turned them in to wins we’d be a lot closer to the top. Now, though, we are doing that, but we need to keep the momentum going.
“We’ve got a really good squad. The new players who’ve just come in have strengthened us again. Every single player who has come in has added to the squad, but the great thing is we have a really good dressing-room. Everybody is pulling the same way, working hard every single day, buying into what the staff are trying to do.”
Some of Stubbs’ signings have raised eyebrows but prompted nods of approval at the same time, such as the arrivals of Allan and Fyvie, promising youngsters who went off to seek their fame and fortune in England, only to lose their way, or McGeouch, a talented midfielder but unable to command a place in Ronny Deila’s Celtic team.
Others like Malonga and Dja Djedje pitched up as unknowns, but have quickly won the fans over as has Fontaine, unwanted at Bristol City but now a rock at the heart of the Easter Road defence.
Gray said: “Scott maybe had a wee point to prove coming back up the road, an opportunity to play in a team that wants to do well. Sometimes it takes players time to come in and get used to the Scottish game, a totally different style for the like of Dom and Franck, the high intensity and the fact it is a bit of a battle.
“But the way Dom has come in and adjusted is a credit to him while Franck will only get better by the game. We can see in training he is looking sharper every day. Fonts is another. He came up here after time out through injury and has come on leaps and bounds. In every game he is getting better and better.
“That’s the way the club is going. The competition for places is fierce. It keeps everyone on their toes and makes sure standards are high in training.”
An impressive run of just one defeat in their last 19 league matches – and a Scottish Cup quarter-final against Berwick Rangers to come – is evidence aplenty of the progress made but, Gray conceded, enough only to have Hibs battling it out for a play-off place rather than the title itself.
He said: “It’s up to Hearts to lose it now, I think. They have done really well to get themselves into the position they are in and it would take a massive turnaround for them to throw it away.
“But we are just concentrating on winning our games and making sure we are in the play-offs. Falkirk and Queen of the South are still in the mix, while Raith Rovers are chasing, so we need to keep the momentum we have going, to keep players fit and away from suspensions.”