David Gray believes Hibs’ week-long trip to the sunshine of Spain has left boss Alan Stubbs with a headache, as the warm-weather training they enjoyed has helped a string of players, himself included, who were struggling with injury ready themselves for the play-offs.
The Easter Road club eventually discovered they’ll be facing Rangers rather than Queen of the South as they begin a final push for promotion at Ibrox tomorrow night in what will be their first game in 18 days.
The enforced break was the result of a 3-0 victory over Falkirk on the final day of the regular season, which clinched second place in the Championship table and along with it a less hectic play-off schedule.
Stubbs used that time to take his players to La Manga where Gray, who had been out of action with a hamstring problem for more than a month – although he was pressed into service against the Bairns as a second half substitute after Jordon Forster damaged ankle ligaments – and fellow injury victims Farid El Alagui, Dylan McGeouch and Keith Watson continued their rehabilitation with an eye on being available for the first play-off clash.
Forster also made the trip to Spain and although he’s unlikely to feature in either match against Rangers, he could be back in contention for the Premiership play-off final against Motherwell should Hibs make it.
Now, after missing out on what proved to be a bitterly disappointing Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Falkirk, Gray is determined to play his part in taking Hibs back into the top flight.
He said: “You never know how bad an injury is. The initial thought is, ‘We’ve got big games coming up’. The Scottish Cup was a big one, but straight away I knew I would not be able to play in that one. It was a big blow, but then you think to yourself that it might not be that bad, you try to stay positive.
“I’ve had a few long-term injuries in the past and I’ve dealt with it better the older I’ve got. You have to look at targets to get yourself back and that’s what I did really.
“The good thing finishing second was that we had the extra 18 days to get ourselves ready and everyone benefited from that. I’ve got myself back and training. Keith is back, Farid is back at the right time and there is Dylan as well. Hopefully the manager has got a problem.”
Gray has undoubtedly been a huge success in his first season at Easter Road, the 27-year-old admitting he’s enjoyed a return to Scotland, having moved as a teenager from Hearts to Manchester United before spells with Crewe, PLymouth, Preston, Stevenage and Burton.
As Stubbs’ first signing, he said: “This season has been really good. It was a great move for me to come back up the road on and off the pitch. The family is settled up here, I’ve been getting recognition in the media, but the most important thing was to get game time and get my career going again.
“I’ve enjoyed it and it’s thanks to the manager for having trust in me and signing me.”
A feature of Gray’s performances has been his willingness to get forward, a trait which saw him score his first ever goal as Hibs shocked Rangers 3-1 in Govan in September, a feat he repeated as the Glasgow outfit were demolished 4-0 at Easter Road in December and that, he admitted, is a throwback to his younger days as a winger.
He said: “I went down south as a winger so I’ve always been more forward-thinking than I was defensive-minded. I quickly got moved to right-back, but part of my game is always to get forward and I’ve enjoyed that freedom. The way we play suits me and with Louey [Lewis Stevenson] on the other side, it gives us a real balance.
“Deep down I knew I wasn’t a tricky winger anyway. I was more of a right midfielder than a winger. I always had decent pace – in the way we played when we were younger I was always keen to get forward. I didn’t mind really, it probably helped me more than anything. It’s definitely been the right thing for me in terms of how my career has gone.
“I’ve been at a few teams where the emphasis has been on the defending side rather than having the freedom to run forward. It all depends on the shape you play in. We’ve been lucky that we’ve got sitter in the middle of the park, so that allowed me and Louey more freedom going forward. The four boys in the middle like to rotate and they’re usually reliable. It’s something that works really well for us.”
It was at United where Gray made the switch under former Scotland star Brian McClair, the head of United’s youth academy who will take over as the SFA’s performance director next month and where he found himself under the wing of Old Trafford legend Gary Neville.
He said: “I think I just played right-back in a bounce game or in training one time. It was probably the fact I quite liked a tackle as well – you don’t get many wingers that like to tackle.
“Brian McClair did a fantastic job at United and I’m not surprised he has taken that SFA role on. I’m sure he’ll do really well in that.
“Gary Neville was club captain and he was really good with me. He was good with all the young boys coming through. He’s a one-club man, at United all his time and he took great pride in every single thing he did. He’s Man United through and through and for anyone coming through, it’s all about the club.
“Because he’d been there and done it, you listened to anything he said. He played at the highest level his whole career and has loads of caps for England. It’s little things, it could be anything. If he was giving you a rollicking you turn around and take it. He just wanted to win. If you were on the losing team in training he’d be quick to give you it.
“I moved away a number of years ago, but he’s one of those people who knows what he is talking about and it doesn’t surprise me he’s doing so well at the pundit stuff on Sky and as a coach with England.”
Gray watched Rangers and Queen of the South battle it out for the right to face Hibs in the Premiership play-off semi-final but, he insisted, both he and his team-mates weren’t too bothered as to who they’d play.
He said: “We need to concentrate on ourselves, that’s the reality of it. We’ve got four games to go and at the end of it we should, hopefully, be in the Premiership. That’s the only way we can look at it now.”