Ever since David Gray arrived at Hibs 18 months ago, his team have effectively been locked in direct combat with Rangers.
Last season the pair jousted for second place in the Championship, with the Edinburgh side eventually pipping their Glasgow rivals on the last day. Just weeks later, however, the Ibrox men exacted revenge when they edged Alan Stubbs’ men out in a closely-fought two-legged play-off semi-final. The fact neither side were able to follow Hearts up to the Premiership meant their remarkable series was extended for another campaign. Since the start of last season, the teams have met ten times in all competitions. Hibs have won five; Rangers have won five.
Today, almost half-way into the current season, they meet again at Ibrox, separated only by goal difference at the top of the table. This astonishingly evenly-contested rivalry has been arguably the most fascinating aspect of Scottish football over the past year-and-a-half, and this afternoon’s match goes down as the most eagerly awaited of the current campaign by some distance.
“It must be double figures I’ve played against Rangers now,” said Gray, who is relishing the latest instalment of inter-city combat. “We played them a lot last year and this will be the fourth this time. I really enjoy it, especially at Ibrox. The stadium speaks for itself and normally the atmosphere’s great from both sets of fans and the actual playing surface itself, it’s a really nice place. The games are always good because the two teams want to play attacking football and they’re enjoyable to play in.
“You really hear it when you’re standing in the tunnel with the build-up to the game and the excitement and a bit of nerves to be honest. I get a bit anxiousness and nervousness but as soon as the game starts you relish it and enjoy it. You never know who’s going to win. This one’s got the makings of a great game. We’re on a great run of form and they’re top of the league and have done really well. We’re two attacking teams, but something’s got to give.”
The prospect of the two teams spending Christmas Day level on points had looked unlikely for most of the season. From the moment Hibs lost 1-0 at Ibrox in the third league match of the season and fell six points behind fast-starting Rangers, Stubbs’ team appeared to be fighting a losing battle. This theory was strengthened when they slipped 11 points behind the Ibrox team after a 1-1 draw at home to St Mirren at the end of September. However, a largely unforeseen 17-game unbeaten run – comprising of 15 victories – since Rangers’ right-back James Tavernier scored that free-kick winner on a sun-kissed day in Glasgow more than four months ago has hauled Hibs right back into the mix.
“We’ve got two teams level at Christmas and if you go back to how far they were in front in October time to get it back to where we have, I think we’ve done really well,” said Gray, the Hibs captain. “Rangers were so far in front early on that people thought they had won the league, but I always believed we could go on a run and I always felt Rangers would drop points. Having been in this league last year, we know everyone can take points off everyone. Obviously we’ve shown that in our last two games [against Falkirk and Queen of the South]. We just got over the line in the last minute at the weekend there and Rangers dropped points at Falkirk.
“After the last game at Ibrox, obviously we were really disappointed, but the manager came in and said ‘I don’t think you got what you deserved’. Obviously it was a great free kick but on another day that goes over the bar and it probably ends up nil-nil. We had three or four really, really good chances and if you’re getting those sort of chances at Ibrox you really do need to take them. We came away from the game knowing there’s not a big difference in the teams and that we’re more than capable of beating them.”
And beat them they did, when the teams last met at Easter Road. That 2-1 victory on the first day of November removed the wind from Rangers’ sails. Mark Warburton’s team go into today’s match having won only two of their last six games, but Gray is of no mind to suggest that their rivals will implode if Hibs can get their noses in front for the first time by winning today. “Nah, I don’t think you can say that [their bottle will crash],” he said. “If it does, that’s great for us but at the same time we can only concentrate on ourselves. We’re on a 17-game unbeaten run so we just know we have to maintain that. We know we’re in a good place at the minute and especially with the two games there, scoring so late on shows the sort of character and desire we’ve got at the minute and that’s showing every single day in training. We go into the game full of confidence.”
Ibrox was buoyant when Hibs last visited back in August, but much of Rangers’ early-season feelgood factor has seeped away in light of their recent toils. Gray is hopeful that a sell-out crowd, of which less than 1000 will be Hibs fans, can work in his team’s favour. “I think if we go there and start well that would be important,” he said. “We know when the fans are behind us at Easter Road it spurs you on to get that early goal. But at the same time, if the fans turn and get anxious then maybe that can make them (the players) a little more uptight. That would definitely benefit us.”