Hibs skipper David Gray is desperate to make up for lost time having seen last season virtually written off by injury.
A persistent knee problem restricted Gray to just 12 appearances, the last of which came in mid-November, only for him to rupture his Achilles tendon just minutes into his comeback match during the Easter Road club’s winter break in Portugal in January.
Now the 30-year-old is looking to lead the Capital club into their Europa League campaign, confident Neil Lennon’s players can make the most of having been drawn against the minnows of NSi Runavik of the Faroe Islands.
Gray was the Hibees’ hero in the competition two years ago, scoring in Copenhagen to level the tie against Danish outfit Brondby only for Lennon’s men to lose out on penalties.
But, he insisted, that performance has given him and his team-mates the belief they’ll progress to face Greek club Asteras Tripolis in the second qualifying round.
He said: “We think the draw has been decent for us and there’s a lot of belief we can get the result. We deserve to be in Europe given the way we played last season and we don’t want to let ourselves down. I think running Brondby so close gives us a confidence. It was my first experience of playing away in Europe and I thoroughly enjoyed it. No-one enjoys going out but we took a bit of credit knowing we had played well and should possibly have gone through. Brondby went on to win the next round (against Hertha Berlin) so, while we were disappointed, we are looking to that to give a good account of ourselves and see how far we can go.”
Hibs began their preparations for the visit of Runavik for the first-leg tie at Easter Road on Thursday week with a 2-0 win against Linlithgow Rose at the weekend, Gray playing his part in paving the way for Danny Swanson to score both second-half goals.
Further games at Berwick Rangers on Wednesday night and Paul Hanlon’s testimonial match against Blackburn Rovers on Sunday take place before Runavik’s visit and Gray is confident both he and his team-mates will be ready. He said: “It will be a difficult game. Runavik are fourteen games or so into their season and will be up to speed. The manager and all the staff are really pushing us to be ready but it is up to us what we do, how we apply ourselves and approach the game.”
On a personal note, Gray admitted he was delighted to get 45 minutes under his belt at Prestonfield, saying: “It’s been a long time. It was a strange one – I was asking myself what had happened (when suffering the Achilles injury). I thought someone had kicked me but there was no-one near me. It was just one of those things.
“I took the positives from it, I was told I could have been out for nine months or a year but it was only going to be four or six months.
“As hard as it was, I had good people around me, at home, the staff at the club, the facilities we have. The physios have done a fantastic job to get me back.”
Gray was fit enough to take a place on the bench for two of Hibs’ final three games of the season without being called upon but, he revealed, even that was confidence-boosting. He said: “I’d worked hard and made a full recovery, managed to get through it. Being fit before the end of the season was great. It meant I could get away and not worry about it carrying over into the new season and perhaps missing pre-season training. t was difficult sitting watching the lads last season especially when they were doing so well. After Christmas they were fantastic and you just wanted to be part of it. But now I am ready to go.”