Eleven months ago, Hibs travelled to Ibrox for their first league meeting with Rangers as big outsiders. Ally McCoist’s team had won eight of their nine previous matches in all competitions, while the Easter Road side, still finding their feet after a difficult summer, had lost four of their first six Championship matches.
Alan Stubbs’ side were given little hope of going to Ibrox and winning. Yet, in the build-up to that match, David Gray was in notably bullish mood when he spoke to the Evening News, adamant that his team had enough about them to come away with three points. And they did. After racing into a remarkable 3-0 lead within 40 minutes, Hibs won 3-1 – Gray grabbing the second – and the whole complexion of their season began to change. They lost only once in the following five months and ended up finishing second – above Rangers – in the Championship.
This summer has been nowhere near as difficult as last year’s for Hibs, but the Scott Allan saga, a 6-2 Petrofac Training Cup defeat by Rangers and an opening-day league humbling at Dumbarton have all served to dampen much of the pre-season optimism. Despite this, coupled with Rangers’ early-season buoyancy under Mark Warburton, Gray is just as confident as he was last September that Hibs can overcome the odds and win at a venue where they triumphed twice in four visits last season.
“People can say Rangers are favourites if they want – that doesn’t bother us,” the Hibs captain told the Evening News. “We know it’s going to be a hard game, and it’ll be a full house, which will add to the occasion. With the new players they’ve brought in, they’re probably stronger than they were last year. But we know what we’re capable of and we know we’re more than a match for anyone on our day.
“Last season, we went there as underdogs and we got a good result although we can’t just expect that to happen this time because it’s a totally different season. But I’d like to think the fact we’ve won there twice in the last year would give us confidence. It’s good to have that knowledge that you’ve done it before and that it’s not impossible. Even in the play-off game that we lost, we went there and controlled long periods of the game. The most important thing when you go to Ibrox is that you don’t go there with fear. Everybody’s well aware that we’re going there to express ourselves and we’re going there to get three points – nothing else.”
Gray is reading nothing into the fact his side were ultimately turned over by Rangers in the cup tie just four weeks ago, as he maintains it is a game that Hibs could have won comfortably. There’s a lot of hype about them and they beat us 6-2 but we certainly didn’t come away from that game thinking we’re not capable of matching Rangers or we’re not as good as them – anything but,” he said. “As we know only too well, the game’s all about scoring goals and we got punished in that 6-2 game because we didn’t take our chances and put the game to bed when we were on top in the first half. Losing three goals in about ten minutes killed us and left us on the back foot. For forty minutes of that game, we were well in control and should have been a couple up. We need to make sure when those chances come along that we take them.”
After being left behind by eventual champions Hearts last season, Gray is conscious of the need to prevent Rangers opening up an early advantage on Hibs in the title race. A home win on Sunday would take Warburton’s men six points clear after just three games. By the same token, an away win would put the two title favourites level on points and give Hibs a major morale boost after a stuttering start.
“It was really disappointing to lose on the opening day,” said Gray. “There were no excuses – we just weren’t on our game that day and we got what we deserved. That was really disappointing so it was important that we bounced back against Morton and got our first three points on the board at the earliest opportunity. Effectively, our season started last Saturday.
“It wasn’t until the end of September that we got going last season and by that time we had left it too late to get anywhere near Hearts and they were able to run away with it. We don’t want to let Rangers open up a gap on us this time so it’s important we get something on Sunday. We’re in a good place at the minute and we’ll be going there full of confidence.”
Despite the sense of vulnerability about the club prior to the Morton victory, Gray was always confident his team would soon find their stride.
“It’s easy to look for excuses when things are not going well but you only have to look in the dressing-room to see the ability and experience we’ve got here to know that we would get back on track,” he said. “The dressing-room here is really good. We’ve kept the core of last season’s team, which was really important. The squad’s taking shape now – we’re starting to get real competition for places, which is vital, so there’s no reason we can’t kick on and have a good season.”