DAVID GRAY certainly won’t be short of inspiration or motivation as he bids to help Hibs end a century and a bit of Scottish Cup hurt.
The Easter Road vice-captain grew up in an environment where showpiece games and glory were the norm.
Although not directly involved in Manchester United’s trophy-plundering in the golden years of Sir Alex Ferguson, Gray, as a highly-regarded youngster on the books at Old Trafford, was given plenty opportunities to savour some of the biggest occasions in football in a spectating capacity.
It is eye-opening experiences such as attending back-to-back Champions League finals featuring the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo which helped imbue the Hibs right-back with the ambition and desire to experience such career-defining moments for himself.
“When I was at United I went to the two Champions League finals, in Moscow (against Chelsea in 2008) and Rome (against Barcelona in 2009),” said Gray, recalling his most notable cup memories ahead of tomorrow’s Scottish Cup quarter-final at home to Berwick Rangers. “The club provided tickets for everyone and they were really good trips, especially the one they won when John Terry slipped and missed his penalty.
“The one in Rome, when Messi scored, was an incredible experience. It’d be very hard to get to that level as a player, but it was a dream come true to go to a game like that and just to be around those players. To see Messi and Ronaldo, two of the greatest players ever to kick a ball, on the same pitch is a special thing that you never forget. I went to a couple of FA Cup finals as well – one was at the Millennium Stadium. I was never involved in any squads for those games, just there as a fan but they were so inspirational.”
Gray thought he was going to get his own big day out in the sun last May when his former club, Burton Albion, reached the League Two play-off final.
As a man intent on soaking up every experience that comes his way, a trip to Wembley was right up Gray’s street. However, the Roslin boy was left on the bench as the Brewers lost 1-0 to Fleetwood Town. “I was disappointed not to start at Wembley,” he recalls.
“I played in both of the semi-finals, but I could sense earlier in the week the way we were shaping up in training that I probably wasn’t going to start. Even though I didn’t get on it was great just to be there and be part of it.
“The whole Wembley experience was great, going down there the day before and then getting to the ground early and soaking it all in. It wasn’t full obviously, but to think you’re actually standing on the Wembley pitch is a pretty amazing feeling.”
At 26 and in the form of his life with an upwardly-mobile Hibs team, Gray senses this is his time to finally enjoy some glory for himself. He has never previously played in a quarter-final at first-team level and, with Hibs overwhelming favourites to get past League Two side Berwick, a window of opportunity appears to be opening as the Easter Road side aim to banish their infamous 113-year wait for the Scottish Cup.
“I’ve never been as far as this,” he said.
“I was involved in the FA Cup a few times but we generally got knocked out in the early rounds.
“With the Scottish Cup being so important, this is definitely the best cup run I’ve been on – I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
“I have thought about what it would be like to get to the final with Hibs, especially as the club hasn’t won the cup for so long. To have the opportunity we’ve got just now, I feel fortunate and really excited.
“Why can’t we do it? We don’t have any pressure on us. We’re not expected to win it. But certainly no-one here is thinking we can’t win the Scottish Cup just because Hibs generally don’t win the Scottish Cup. The lads here are just seeing it as a great opportunity to get to Hampden.”
With 11-and-a-half years having elapsed since his only previous appearance at the national stadium, Gray is desperate to make it to the semi-finals and earn another chance to play there.
The defender fulfilled a childhood dream when, as a 15-year-old, he helped Scotland Under-16s draw with an England side containing Manchester City defender Micah Richards in a Victory Shield match in November 2003. The prospect of returning to Glasgow’s south side as a fully-fledged professional, backed by thousands of Hibs supporters, provides Gray with all the motivation he needs to help his side into the last four.
“I was only 15 then, so it’s been a long time for me to wait to get back to Hampden,” he said. “Coming through the Scotland set-up, 17s, 19s, 21s, none of the games were at Hampden. I’ve been to watch a few games there but I’d be delighted to get back there as a player. Even at the time, I never took it for granted or thought I would play there loads of times. I took it all in.
“My biggest ambition in life has always been to play for the national team, so to get the chance to play at the national stadium is a dream come true at any age. I’d love to get back there.”