Less than two months ago Rangers pitched up at Easter Road with, as was being widely predicted, a 12th consecutive league win awaiting, a victory which would put them 11 points ahead of Hibs and all but guarantee them the Championship title with barely a third of the season played.
Mark Warburton’s side had, of course, swept all before them and other than a League Cup defeat by Premiership outfit St Johnstone, they simply looked unstoppable.
The Ibrox bandwagon was, however, brought to a shuddering halt, Paul Hanlon’s header not only earning the Capital club a memorable victory but hammering out the message that Alan Stubbs’ players were anything but also-rans in the title race.
Since then, Hibs have remorselessly hunted down their rivals, building up a highly impressive run of 17 matches unbeaten, while lately Rangers have stuttered, picking up just eight points from their last six matches, a scenario which now has Stubbs’ side level at the top of the table and with the opportunity to take the lead outright for themselves when they travel to Govan for next Monday’s showdown.
But while David Gray today insisted that’s exactly what he and his team-mates intend to do, the Hibs skipper insisted whatever the outcome of this latest clash nothing, just as on November 1, will be decided.
However, Gray believes Hibs have built up a real head of steam, displaying a never-say-die attitude which was never clearer than in their last two outings when goals in added-on time – Martin Boyle equalising against Falkirk with his side down to nine men, John McGinn having been red carded and Lewis Stevenson off with a head injury, and Dominique Malonga claiming an even later winner over Queen of the South.
Those results, coupled with Rangers defeat by the Bairns who now lie just six points behind, do, though, in Gray’s estimation, merely underline his view that win, lose or draw at Ibrox, this season is destined for a nail-biting finale.
The right back said: “At the start of November I was asked the question, was it a must win game as far as we were concerned given Rangers could have gone 11 points ahead.
“But there are so many teams in this league capable of beating each other. Rangers dropped points against Falkirk as we also did while we very nearly lost another couple against Queen of the South. It just shows there’s a lot of football to be played and just how big that point we earned against Falkirk was.
“We knew Rangers were going to have a tough game at Falkirk who have been going well and are well involved. But we also realised we had a difficult game against Queens.”
Gray and his team-mates obviously knew of Rangers defeat before kicking off against the Dumfries side, something which brought an added pressure to bear with the home fans expecting nothing less than victory.
And even although Gray firmly felt that all-important goal was coming as his side pressed forward in the final ten minutes, he admitted he didn’t actually realise just how late on it was as his cross was met by the head of substitute Malonga.
With the Easter Road clock stopped on 90 minutes Gray realised time was fast running out, but with the absence of a fourth official in all but televised matches in the Championship he didn’t know, other than desperately asking referee Brian Colvin for guidance, just how many extra minutes would be added.
He said: “When you are driving forward as we were and the board goes up showing a fair number of minutes will be added on lifts the crowd which helps. But when you don’t know you are just hoping there’s going to be enough time to get another chance, although I was asking the ref how long he was going to let it go.”
Three-and-a-half minutes beyond the 90 and Malonga’s goal signalled bedlam both on and off the pitch, the Hibs fans obviously not only jubilant but mightily relieved, while the Palmerston Park players were furious, accusing Colvin, who had stopped the game as he was required to do as Queens’ midfielder Kyle Hutton appeared to have suffered a head injury, of restarting by gifting the home side possession rather than allowing a contested “drop ball”.
But Gray pointed out Hibs had been in possession deep inside their own half, saying: “Fraser [Fyvie] was well in control of the situation and was going to play the ball back to Mark Oxley to play it out the other side of the pitch. We worked it from one corner to the one diagonally opposite at the other end of the pitch with Henri Anier playing a nice pass for me down the line.
“I managed to get a decent cross in and Dom did the rest.”
Gray revealed, however, that the Congolese striker’s downward header seemed “to take an eternity” as it passed Queens goalkeeper Robbie Thomson and into the net, confessing: ““I’d sensed a goal coming in the last ten minutes. The fans were great in driving us on, but it was a massive relief to see it eventually go over the line. The timing was perfect.
The fact that both Malonga and Anier, along with Islam Feruz, had stepped off the bench to replace Hibs’ original frontline of Jason Cummings, James Keatings and Boyle also, according to Gray, told it’s own story of the strength in depth of Stubbs’ squad.
He said: “I’m sure Dom would have been disappointed to have been left out having played the last few games and played well, but his reaction to that was terrific. Henri has a physical side he can bring and allowed us to play a bit more direct, while Izzy came on and showed some nice touches.
“It shows the strength in depth we have and the manager and his staff have to take credit for building a squad where everyone is fighting for their place, knowing that if they don’t play well someone is going to take over.”
The win does, as Gray agreed, set everything up nicely for Ibrox on Monday, a game he believes as all the makings of a Christmas cracker. He said: “There’s all to play for. It will be a full-house, the atmosphere should be good and I’m sure the players and fans will be excited.
“We’re just concentrating on ourselves, we’ve been building momentum and we want to keep that and our team spirit going.”