Hibs skipper David Gray today called for “more of the same” against Raith Rovers tomorrow after a gritty, battling performance at Falkirk saw the Easter Road club leapfrog the Fife outfit in the Championship table.
Jason Cummings’ controversial penalty also league leaders Rangers’ advantage over Hibs to eight points, with the clubs due to clash in Edinburgh next Sunday.
But, Gray insisted, there’s little point in talking of that showdown until the visit to Stark’s Park is over with as the Hibees aim to keep momentum going.
And he’s well aware that, like Falkirk, Raith caused him and his team-mates more than a few problems last season, the Kirkcaldy club twice holding them to draws home and away, while also coming up with a late winner the last time the two sides met.
Raith, of course, are under new management from last season, with Ray McKinnon having replaced Grant Murray, but their recent form has been impressive. The have clocked up five straight wins in the league and have conceded only one goal in that competition at their own ground all season.
Gray said: “People will talk about Hibs and Rangers because they are the so-called bigger names, but we know from being in this division last season that every single game is difficult.
“Raith are similar to Falkirk. They never give up, you always know they are in it. Both Raith and Falkirk have flown a wee bit under the radar, but Raith have done very well this season and we’ll be going into the game fully expecting another tough match.”
As Gray pointed out, though, Hibs themselves have been picking up after a slow start to the season, only one point dropped in seven games and a spot in the League Cup quarter-finals secured by defeating then-Premiership leaders Aberdeen.
However, as far as Gray is concerned, the match against Rangers and the quarter-final against Dundee United can wait, saying: “Rangers are eight in front and flying but at the same time we are going about our business in the way we wanted to and we are slowly getting the games together and have a good run going at the minute.
“We’re into a big period of games. We’ve won the first two and now we are looking to make it three tomorrow. And that, honestly, is as far ahead as we are looking. There’s no point talking about Rangers and the cup game if we do not the get the result against Raith.”
Over the course of those two wins against Dumbarton and Falkirk, Stubbs’ players showed they can not only turn on the flair as they did on Saturday, but also roll up the sleeves and battle as required a few days later. And almost as pleasing as the victory over the Bairns was, having lost two sloppy goals to Dumbarton, a clean sheet, Hibs ninth of the season, as Gray acknowledged.
He said: “It was a hard-fought win and we were delighted with the three points. We knew Falkirk is a hard place to go to. They make it very difficult for you and towards the end of the game they were throwing absolutely everything at us. But defensively we were very good and to come out of it with a clean sheet was great.
“For all we were happy with the win over Dumbarton, we weren’t at all happy to have lost those two goals. I was responsible for the first – it was a slack clearance from me – and the second was from a set piece. We did play some great stuff and created four great goals – and it could have been more – but as defenders you are judged on the goals you lose. So while we weren’t as fluent against Falkirk, we were better defensively, which was good to see.”
Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs made three changes for the trip to Falkirk, having also done so for the visit of Dumbarton and Gray admitted he wouldn’t be surprised if the head coach did so again for the short journey over the Forth, pointing to the strength of the bench, where Farid El Alagui made his first appearance of the season, one of three strikers named among the substitutes.
Gray said: “It was great to see Farid back. He’s played a few games for the Under-20s but we’ve also had Fraser Fyvie, James Keatings, Jordon Forster and Islam Feruz all back from injury over the past week, Adam Eckersley played for the development team the other day and Henri Anier isn’t far away.
“There’s terrific competition for places all over the pitch. It keeps everyone on their toes as we all know we have to raise our game and keep on top of it. It’s a real dilemma for the manager to have, he’ll have decisions to make every week which is important. He can put a team out for each game with confidence, feeling that we’ll win the game.”
To underline his point, Gray pointed to how Liam Fontaine, a rock in the centre of Hibs defence for the past year, found himself among the substitutes as Darren McGregor kept his place at Falkirk, while Forster didn’t even make it that far.
He said: “Fonts has been solid as a rock for us, but to be able to bring him on to strengthen the defence even further as Falkirk were desperately trying to get that equaliser pumping the ball forward, just shows the great depth we have. It’s a fantastic position to be in, but now we have to try to kick on starting with another win tomorrow.”