Captain, leader, legend: Why David Gray has been such a key figure for Hibs on and off the park
Players don’t often stick around at one club for the best part of a decade, and certainly not at Hibs, unless they happen to be called Paul Hanlon or Lewis Stevenson.
While he will remain at Easter Road in a coaching capacity, the man the fans know as Sir David Gray has kicked his last ball for the club after seven memorable years.
Gray arrived at Easter Road in the summer of 2014; the first signing of the new regime following the ignominious relegation via the play-offs some months prior.
With the manner of the club’s disastrous descent into the second tier still fresh in supporters’ memories there was little excitement at the signing of the right-back from Burton Albion.
Fewer than three months after joining Hibs, he netted his first goal at Easter Road: a howitzer of a strike from 20 yards into the top corner to open the scoring in an eventual 4-0 win against Rangers at Easter Road. He had already opened his account at Ibrox, and scored again at Alloa.
Twelve more goals followed including strikes against Asteras Tripolis and NSI Runavik in Europe. Gray celebrated every goal as if it was his last; lengthy knee-slides and pile-ons causing the physio about as much concern as when the skipper threw himself into every 50-50 or 40-60.
Given Gray’s influence at the club it is easy to forget that he was only installed as team captain at the end of his first term in green and white following the departure of Liam Craig but since then he has led by example – a natural leader.
It has not always been smooth sailing for the skipper. Managerial shifts, training ground incidents, lengthy injuries, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are just some of what he has had to deal with during his tenure yet he has successfully piloted the dressing room through the highs, the lows, and the unexpecteds of football with consummate ease.
A quick glance at the tributes from his team-mates past and present back this up. “A club legend, an unbelievable captain and teammate but most importantly a top, top guy,” wrote Joe Newell on social media, while Josh Doig added: “Always setting the standard and always there to help. It’s been a privilege.”
That day in May
Would many Hibs fans have picked out Gray as the man to end the 114-year hoodoo at Hampden in May 2016 against Rangers? Probably not, especially after Anthony Stokes’ double in the first 80 minutes.
The fairytales were already being prepared: boyhood Hibee Paul Hanlon, who missed the 2007 League Cup win but had been on the losing side in two previous cup finals; Lewis Stevenson, who had already lifted one domestic cup and had the chance to become the first Hibs player ever to win both trophies.
Shortly after Hibs had equalised, Gray looked to be struggling with an injury. Nothing too serious, but enough to raise the prospect of a substitution as he remained on the deck and when Niklas Gunnarsson got stripped and took instructions from first-team coach John Doolan, it looked as though the captain's cup final was over, until Hanlon made way.
It was Gray’s hassling of Nicky Clark that pressured the Rangers forward into knocking the ball out of play; it was Gray who took the quick throw-in to Fraser Fyvie, whose pass to Stokes set up the Irishman for the effort that Gers ‘keeper Wes Foderingham tipped round the post for a corner, and it was Gray who gave his marker the slip on the edge of the six-yard box to plant his header firmly beyond Foderingham’s grasp at thin air to send half of Hampden and several thousands more Hibees around the world wild and win the Scottish Cup for Hibs for the first time in 114 years.
Had he not soldiered on after picking up that knock the outcome could have been so very different. As it was, he dug deep and found something extra to give, as he did so often in a Hibs shirt, beating Andy Halliday to the ball and writing himself into the history books.
Just a few short months ago he admitted for the umpteenth time since May 21, 2016 that the magnitude, the sheer scale of his goal wouldn’t sink in until he had hung up his boots. While Gray might have retired as a player, he will keep the boots in good working order as part of the coaching staff, and perhaps delaying the moment in which he fully comprehends the enormity of his goal.
A pivotal figure
It cannot, and should not be underestimated how important Gray has been in Hibs’ rebirth. Brought in at the very start of the revival, at a stage when there weren’t even any first-team goalkeepers at the club, Gray has remained a key figure at Easter Road since.
He has led both on and off the park, none more so than when he put an arm round Kevin Nisbet at the final whistle after the striker had missed a penalty in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts just days after his father had passed away. It was a simple gesture but it said a lot about Gray as a man, captain, and team-mate.
Even when he was reduced to a watching brief and the odd cameo in League Cup games he still delivered, as evidenced by his winner at Station Park against Forfar in October last year.
For everything Gray has given to Hibs as a player, captain, leader, and Scottish Cup hero, and for what he will continue to give in his role as first-team coach, he deserves a full house for his testimonial – Covid restrictions permitting – which the club has said will be “firmed up as soon as possible”.
All that remains now is for Buckingham Palace to sort out Gray’s official knighthood.