David Gray: Game in Toftir has to be Hibs’ wake-up call

David Gray leads Hibs out in Toftir
David Gray leads Hibs out in Toftir
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It wasn’t so much the six goals scored that has been exercising the mind of Hibs captain David Gray but the four the Easter Road side had conceded to Faroese minnows NSI Runavik.

Already 6-1 up from the home leg of their Europa League first qualifying round, Neil Lennon’s players had travelled to the North Atlantic outpost safe in the knowledge they’d secured their place in the next stage, a double-header with Greek club Asteras Tripolis.

But, admitted Gray, the alarm bells began to sound loud and clear as what was seen as no more than a formality suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse, Runavik scoring twice in the opening five minutes to put an unexpected question mark against the Edinburgh club’s progress.

Hibs eventually ran out 6-4 winners on the night and 12-5 on aggregate but, conceded Gray, the delight of keeping their dream of defying the odds to reach the group stages of the competition alive was somewhat tempered by the performance produced in the surreal surroundings of Toftir’s cliff-top Svangaskard Stadium which found itself shrouded in a thick fog, so much so that at one stage it appeared as the game might have to be abandoned.

“It definitely wasn’t a great start to find ourselves 2-0 down,” agreed Gray. “But we reacted well and got ourselves back into the game quite quickly.

“When you find yourself 2-0 down so quickly, regardless of how the first leg went, then alarm bells start to ring and you know you need to get back in the game. It was about reacting and trying to win.”

Strikes from John McGinn and Lewis Stevenson appeared to have soothed the nerves of both Neil Lennon’s players and those travelling Hibs fans who formed the bulk of the tiny crowd of just 587.

But in a highly entertaining match - at least as far as the home support were concerned - the game see-sawed back and forward Runavik nosing in front again only for Gray himself to equalise on the stroke of half-time with Hibs nudging ahead for the first time through Efe Ambrose.

Runavik, though, refused to lie down, their skipper Klaemint Olsen completing his hat-trick before two sublime strikes from Stevie Mallan settled things once and for all in Hibs favour.

Gray, however, insisted it was obvious there were glaring deficiencies which need to be addressed, and quickly with the home leg against Asteras now only five days away.

He said: “The manner in which we lost the goals was disappointing. There is a lot of work to be done. We know that, but the main thing is we’re through. We’ll get back on the training ground and work on the things we need to.

“It’s great that we are creating chances and scoring goals. That’s positive for the boys and the confidence levels at this stage of the season. We always feel we can create, the disappointing aspect was defensively because we pride ourselves on being solid.

“It would be easy to look for excuses, the surroundings and so on, but this was about getting performance and fitness levels up, knowing the games will get tougher.”

Gray acknowledged Hibs now face a huge step up in terms of the quality of opposition in the shape of Asteras, regular competitors in the Europa League and having reached the group stages themselves in consecutive seasons in recent years.

The defender said: “I thought we played really well in the first leg, dominated the game and their goal came from a bit of a fluke deflection. Aside from that, we were in control, and we know we are capable of that.

“Hopefully Thursday was a bit of a one-off in terms of defending and we can just focus on getting a good week’s training under our belts because we know we are in for a tough game.

“We can’t defend against anyone like that, never mind the Greek side. We conceded four goals. You will get punished at any level for that, but hopefully it acts as a bit of a wake-up call and we can get back to working hard and correcting the mistakes.”

As Gray pointed out, Hibs have found little trouble in scoring themselves, the goal-rush which marked their final games of last season continuing, the 12 claimed against Runavik shared between seven players with new signing Mallan having got four of them.

It’s a record which makes Gray’s assertion that the former St Mirren midfielder, who has returned to Scotland following an unhappy spell with English club Barnsley is “a fantastic addition” to the Easter Road squad a trifle obvious.

Gray said: “I remember playing against him in previous season and every time he shot, he seemed to score. A few cracking free-kicks were among those. It’s brilliant he has managed to come in and do it straight away for us.

“It’s no fluke. He practises them all the time and gets what he deserves for those hours that he puts in, not just on set plays but his general delivery.”