David Gray admits he felt his first Hampden outing as a 15-year-old playing against England in the Victory Shield would also be his last.
But now the Hibs skipper is set to make sixth appearance in just 30 months as the Easter Road outfit bid to defy the odds and claim a place in the final of the Betfred Cup.
He’d be the first to admit Neil Lennon’s players face a mammoth task in beating holders Celtic if they are to line up against either Rangers or Motherwell at the end of next month, needing to end the Glasgow side’s 59-match unbeaten run to do so. However, the 26-year-old insisted Hibs’ record in both the League and Scottish Cups stands them in good stead as does the fact that a few weeks ago they came close to becoming the first team in Scotland to beat Celtic since St Johnstone did so a year past May. He said: “We have to take confidence from our own performances in the cup runs especially. In recent seasons, we have done well in cup competitions – it’s a semi anything can happen.
“We know we go into the game as underdogs but capable of getting the result. There are only four teams left so we know we are capable of doing well.”
Gray joked he hoped Brendan Rodgers’ players were “knackered” after being given a Champions League runaround in Germany by Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, the Celtic players touching down in Glasgow in the early hours of yesterday morning with their boss having bemoaned tomorrow’s lunch-time start.
But, Gray insisted, regardless of what team Rodgers picks it will still be one which will present a formidable hurdle to overcome.
He said: “It was a difficult night for them but a great occasion to go and play in the Champions League. I was impressed with Bayern Munich because they are one of the greatest teams in football at the minute. It was a tough night but a good experience for the players.
“I hope they are knackered to a point but they have such a great squad and can bring in players that, in some people’s opinion, don’t weaken the side.
“They had a great bench on Wednesday night which is more than capable of coming in and doing well. We know whoever they put out they will be a great side and these occasions speak for themselves.”
Gray admitted he’d seen the advert used by BT Sport – who will be televising tomorrow’s match – in which both Hibs and Motherwell appeared to be belittled, the broadcaster seeming to suggest that by using the names of Celtic and Rangers in much larger letters than their opponents that they were predicting an Old Firm final.
He refused to comment on it specifically but insisted that should Hibs win tomorrow he won’t be bothered who triumphs in Sunday’s second semi-final.
He said: “I think, as players, we can only look at ourselves. If we manage to beat Celtic I won’t be sitting saying ‘I want them or them’ in the final. It is what it is and we take what we get.
“We will just be concentrating on ourselves rather than using that as a motivation. We want to be as good as we can be because we know what we have in our dressing-room.”
And the fact it is Celtic won’t, he stressed, matter one jot to Hibs boss Lennon despite his long and close association with the Hoops, adamant he love to be the one to end their long unbeaten record.
Gray said: “It would be nice to be the team who goes and does that but, at the same time, he just wants to win. That is regardless whether it is Rangers, Celtic or whoever we were playing in this semi-final. He instils that every day in training, whether that be a daft five-a-sides or a game of shooting. That is just his mentality.
“He wants to win every single day and, if we go in with the mentality, then we have what it takes to overcome anyone.”
Gray admitted, though, the one thing he and his team-mates cannot afford to do is gift Celtic an early lead as they did against Aberdeen on their last appearance at Hampden in the William Hill Scottish Cup semi-finals.
He said: “It is hard to say what happened, really. Nobody does anything on purpose and there was a short pass here and there and we got punished for it. We were a wee bit on our heels at the start and maybe we were overawed by the occasion a little bit once we had lost the goal. They had a spring in their step after 15 seconds and we were trying to regroup while trying to play a pressing game. For the first 10 to 15 minutes they ran all over us and we struggled to get a foothold in the game. We got the goal just before half-time and from there we were disappointed not to go on and win the game.”
Hampden visits may have become a regular occurrence for Gray since his return to Scotland after spending the vast bulk of his career in England, initially as a trainee with Manchester United, but he still remembers the day he and now team-mate Lewis Stevenson lined up against England as kids. He said “Yes, it was 1-1. Lewis was involved. I think Micah Richards played for England – he was about that age.
“The first time I played here [at Hampden] I was 15 and still at school. I went to maths in the morning and was telling everyone I was going to be on the television that night. Going back to school after it was a bit surreal as well. Then I went back down south. The dream is always to play here again for your country. To represent your country in the national stadium would have been a dream come true but to play here at any level is fantastic and we are all looking forward to the weekend.”