Competition for places has already been tough at Easter Road, but skipper David Gray now expects it to intensify even further as players battle it out for a place in Alan Stubbs’ League Cup final team.
The Hibs head coach knew he had left a few players disappointed at not making the starting line-up to face St Johnstone in the semi-final at Tynecastle but insisted that over the course of the next few weeks, as the club chases glory on three fronts, they all will have a part to play.
With the Hampden final against Ross County now put to one side, full concentration, Gray insisted, is on tonight’s Championship match against Morton at Cappielow. But he believes that as Sunday, March 13 looms ever closer the fight to be right at the heart of the head coach’s plans will become all the fiercer.
“I think it can only be a good thing,” insisted the right back. “Everyone wants to play in the final, don’t they? The boys know if they are not performing every week for whatever reason and the manager wants to change it, he has the options there.
“There were boys on Saturday left out from the week before and I’m sure they would have been disappointed but the manager has done that on three or four occasions, rotating the squad to who he thinks is capable of winning that game and what he wants to do for that game.
“Everyone knows where he stands; you have to work as hard as you can to stay in the team.”
Stubbs’ options for the final have been boosted following Ross County’s surprise defeat of Celtic which has freed on-loan Hoops players Liam Henderson and Anthony Stokes to face the Staggies. Henderson had another outstanding game against Saints while Stokes missed out with a back injury but Gray said: “Liam has done really well, he has been brilliant the last couple of weeks and it would have been a disappointment to him if he hadn’t been able to play having done so well in the semi so that’s a bonus. But the final is a one-off game and anyone can win it. It’s one of those where both teams will go thinking they can win.”
Tonight’s match is sandwiched between two visits to Tynecastle, a return trip to Gorgie on Sunday to face Hearts in the Scottish Cup also very much in mind, a programme which Gray insisted made it “great to be involved in football”.
But the former Manchester United trainee says switching from the highs of the weekend to Cappielow and then back to an Edinburgh derby won’t present a problem for him and his team-mates.
He said: “To be honest, I think it is a lot easier having won at the weekend. Had we lost we’d maybe have been a bit down, thinking we’d missed an opportunity. But we won. We spoke to the manager after it, got a pat on the back and were told ‘you’ve done well’. Then straight away we were in the next day preparing for Morton.
“We always knew that was the way it was going to be – in, recovered, some more recovery yesterday and a bit of light training all geared for tonight. But we always said this one was more important than the last one.”
Nevertheless, Gray admitted this is a massive week in Hibs’ season as they strive to ensure their interest in three competitions remains, the 27-year-old stating: “I’ve said it so many times, the objective is to try to win the league and promotion. That’s our objective, but the cup runs have been a real bonus. The fans have something to look forward to, we will also look forward to it but the weekend is gone, we move on to Morton.
“I think it’s good we’ve got this match, we’re high on confidence coming off a win which is a good thing. You look down the line, we have Morton, we have Hearts after that and then Livingston and Alloa. Every game is massive between now and the end of the season because of the position we have put ourselves in. Every one will be almost like a cup final. There’s going to be a real effort to get the right results.”
Although Hibs have now beaten three Premiership teams in clinching that League Cup final place – Aberdeen and Dundee United having earlier been defeated – the players treated those ties as they would any other match.
Gray said: “It’s that old cliché, it’s game by game. We know we have a good squad, that we have competition for places and that we are playing some good stuff at the moment. We go into every game thinking we have a chance of winning. It comes down to how we play on the day more than anything.
“You don’t go into a game thinking this will be harder than another, if you do that you are treating one team with more respect and others with less. I don’t think we can do that, we know we have to be on our game to win.”
And he is under no illusions as to how tough it will be at Cappielow after watching Jim Duffy’s side in action against Rangers on television. He said: “Rangers knew they were in a game. It was a real difficult night for them although they ended up winning 2-0.
“The scoreline maybe looks more comfortable than it was. I knew watching the game that tonight is going to be a real tough test for us.”