With the pressure having eased on Hibs after their midweek League Cup victory over Premiership strugglers Ross County, David Gray believes his side are well-equipped to go to Ibrox on Monday night and flourish against another higher-ranked opponent.
The Easter Road side have found matches against the supposed lesser lights of the Championship difficult to negotiate, with defeats by Falkirk, Queen of the South and Alloa, and scrambled victories over Dumbarton, in the League Cup, and Cowdenbeath, in the league, casting doubt over their ability to compete for the title. In short, the favourites’ tag hasn’t sat easily for Hibs.
By contrast, they have looked more comfortable as underdogs away from home. Arguably their most expressive display of the season came against Rangers at Ibrox in the Petrofac Training Cup, while they held their own for most of the match against league leaders Hearts at Tynecastle before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat in the last quarter of an hour. Their impressive counter-attacking display in Dingwall lent further credence to the notion that Alan Stubbs’ team, at this point in their development, may be better suited to games such as this Monday’s.
Despite languishing in seventh place, six points behind Rangers and ten points behind Hearts, Gray feels Hibs’ performances against the two title favourites, as well as their 2-0 victory over Premiership side County, stands them in good stead for their return to Ibrox.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything to fear through there,” said Hibs’ vice- captain. “We gave a good account of ourselves the last time we were there and we felt a few decisions went against us that night. They’re obviously a good side with a lot of experienced players and they’re up near the top of the league for a reason, but with the type of game they’ll play and the type of game we want to play, we feel we can go and express ourselves.
“We’ve had a little bit of pressure on us because of recent results in the league. We’re expected to do well in the division we’re in, and rightly so. But with the distraction of the cup, we went up to Ross County and gave a good account of ourselves. It’s never easy playing a Premiership team, but the style of the game probably helped us a bit compared to the league games because we weren’t up against a team who had parked the bus, so to speak. They came at us, so we were able to hit them on the break rather than spend the whole game trying to break them down.”
Hibs have been left to rue several “what might have been” moments this season, and, with humbling defeats and unconvincing victories causing a familiar sense of gloom to return to Easter Road, Gray was relieved to finally record a genuinely accomplished win in the Highlands.
“It was nice to get rewarded for our hard work because it’s one of the few times this season I think we’ve got what we deserved from a game,” he continued. “It was obviously a nice change from what happened on Saturday [in the 1-0 defeat at Queen of the South].
“You know the frustration [from the fans] is there and it’s totally understandable because we should have won games that we’ve not won recently. Results have not been good enough, but hopefully we can take the confidence from beating Ross County into Monday’s game at Ibrox and try and get three points there.”
Hibs will head along the M8 encouraged by having notched both their first away win and their first clean sheet of the season in Dingwall. With the predatory Rangers striker Kris Boyd hungry to end a five-game scoring drought, the Easter Road defence will have to draw on the defiant spirit that took them into the quarter-finals of the League Cup. “As a defender, a clean sheet is what you set your stall out for,” added Gray. “It feels as good as a goal for the boys at the back. In our last few games, a few individual errors had cost us, but against Ross County it was a great team performance. The defending started from the front, which was great.”
Although he found himself on the back foot for much of the game as County enjoyed the lion’s share of possession on Tuesday, Gray enjoyed the additional opportunities he was afforded to break forward as the right wing-back in a new-look 3-5-2 formation.
“I enjoyed 3-5-2 and it obviously worked well,” said Gray. “I enjoyed being a bit more advanced than usual, but the way the game went, especially late on, I didn’t get forward as much as I would have liked. I enjoyed having a licence to get in at the back post, though. It was good.
“Our three lads at the back were outstanding, especially with the amount of crosses they were dealing with. Paul Hanlon’s head was like a magnet – he was just heading everything away. We had only worked on [the formation] a little bit – it’s not something we’ve hammered in training yet. But I’m sure once we work on it more, it will serve us well. It’s great to have more than one string to your bow in terms of the way you can play.”
Deputy captain Gray was delighted to hand back the armband to Liam Craig, who returned to the starting line-up on Tuesday after being dropped for two games following an underwhelming start to the season. The skipper looked back to his best, producing an energetic and effective display which included a magnificent assist for Hibs’ opener as well as a brave goal-saving header. “Liam’s been left out the last few weeks but, to be fair to him, the reaction he’s shown every day in training has been outstanding,” said Gray. “Obviously he’ll have been disappointed at being dropped, but he came in the other night and showed exactly how to react to being left out.”
Regardless of whether or not an emergency loan deal for Celtic forward Leigh Griffiths can be brokered, Hibs know they will be going to Ibrox with an on-form striker who looks hungry to make his mark. Despite still being some way short of match fitness, Dominique Malonga led Hibs to victory on Tuesday with an excellent headed double. Gray believes Hibs have unearthed a quality striker who will go from strength to strength once he finds his feet at Easter Road. “He scored two great goals the other night,” said the 26-year-old. “He showed that if we get the quality into the box, he’ll score the goals. He’s got a nice touch. He brings the ball down well.”