David Gray headed south as a star-struck teenager to join Manchester United, but has returned home to Edinburgh ten years later as a battle-hardened professional determined to help propel Hibs back into the Scottish Premiership.
And although he played just once for Sir Alex Ferguson, the 26-year-old insists the six seasons he spent at Old Trafford provided an invaluable education, although he was forced to surrender the spoilt lifestyle of a Man U player to further his own career.
Gray was just 16 when the Red Devils forked out £50,000 to Capital rivals Hearts to take the promising winger south but it will be as a right back, a problem position for Hibs, that he’ll occupy when he pulls on a green-and-white shirt for the first time as Alan Stubbs’ side make their debut in the Petrofac Training Cup against Rangers at Ibrox early next month.
And although he initially suffered from homesickness, he admitted he soon found training alongside the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and co addictive – almost like a drug. So, too, was working under the legendary Ferguson.
He said: “I was just a boy then. It was a big change being away from my mum and dad. I was living with a family down there in digs with another couple of lads, I really enjoyed it although it was difficult at first with homesickness. After the first few weeks once I started playing and getting involved in training it was like a drug – it was addictive.
“I was very fortunate to get that education at Man United, you’re almost spoiled as a player, it’s top class facilities, coaches, physios and so on.”
But, Gray revealed, it was the interest shown by Sir Alex which took him by surprise. He said: “Sir Alex was really good with me, it probably helped being Scottish.
“Even before I signed he knew everything about me. I think he makes it is goal, every single player that comes into the club, whether he is 16, a local lad or coming from abroad, as soon as you walk in the building he knows everything about them and makes them feel welcome. Me being young and a bit shy, I was a bit star-struck with him, but he is really good with the young lads.
“He doesn’t have to say much, he has that aura about him and he’s always right. He instils his discipline in every single player, they know exactly where they stand with him. They teach you not only how to be a footballer but off the pitch how to be a person and how to act.”
Gray can still recall his one and only match in a red shirt, a Carling Cup tie away to Crewe Alexandra, the company he kept that night underlining the mammoth task any youngster faces in his bid to force his way into Manchester United’s first team.
He said: “Sir Alex told me the day before I was playing. It was brilliant to hear that. It was a horrible, windy Tuesday night. The back four that night was myself, Wes Brown, Silvestre and Gabrial Heinz, it was quite a strong back four.”
That game may have proved to be a one-off, but it was the daily training routine in which Gray revelled. He said: “You’re lucky enough to train and play with some of the best players in the world. You can see what they do on a daily basis, how professional they are and what they’ve had to do to get to where they’re at.
“It stands you in good stead on and off the park. From a learning point of view it was different class. For me PaulScholes was the best in training; if you were in his team you won.
“I’d stared as a winger/striker because I was quick although you could say I wasn’t the trickiest. Then in a bounce game for the reserves I played at right back, had a chat with the staff afterwards and they wanted to try me there for a wee while and it just took off from there.”
As much as he enjoyed life at United, the day came when Gray decided he had to leave for the sake of his own career, signing for Championship side Preston North End – then managed by Sir Alex’s son Darren.
He explained: “I left for first-team football. I was at that age, at a crossroads in my career, did I stay for another year in the reserves or go and play in the Championship. Preston are a big club, I played against some big clubs so it was a great experience.”
A spell with Stevenage followed and then Burton, but when his contract there expired at the end of last season Gray jumped at the chance to become Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs’ first signing, clinching a two-year deal.
Adamant he didn’t give the fact the Easter Road club had been relegated a second thought, he said: “As soon as I head of the interest from Hibs I was desperate to come. It’s a great opportunity for me to play at such a big club. It was a difficult season for them last season but I’ve spoken to the manager – it didn’t need a hard sell from him – and some of the lads and everyone is really enthusiastic about next season.
“When I went down to England you’d never have thought Hibs, Hearts and Rangers would be in the second tier. When I was a boy it was the three of them plus Celtic and Aberdeen who were always fighting at the top end. Now it looks as if the Championship is going to be every bit as exciting as the Premiership.
“Having grown up just outside Edinburgh I’m fully aware of all the rivalry. Rangers at Ibrox is a great start, it’s an opportunity to hit the ground running and then the second league game is Tynecastle. That won’t bother me, I’ll be giving it 150 per cent.
“My aim is to play as many games as I can with Hibs and get back to the top flight.”