Heading to Ibrox at the end of September, Hibs had lost four of their opening games in the Championship, a record which prompted claims there was only one play-off the Easter Road club were going to be involved in – to avoid relegation for a second successive season.
At that stage, just one point separated Alan Stubbs’ side from second-bottom place as the new head coach not only battled to disperse the dark clouds which had gathered above the east end of Edinburgh but to forge a squad of players capable of taking Hibs back into the top flight of Scottish football.
It looked a forlorn hope, Capital rivals Hearts already rapidly disappearing over the horizon as Hibs fans, still battered and bruised by their club’s astonishing fall from grace only weeks earlier, slipped further into despair as to what the future held.
Fast forward seven months, however, and it is a totally different story. A place in the promotion play-offs is already secured and, now, there is a chance to pip Rangers in the race for second place and ensure a less hectic schedule in that final push to return to the Premiership at the first time of asking.
As Stubbs’ first signing, David Gray has been there from the beginning, part of the rollercoaster which has taken Hibs to as many highs as the lows they have suffered. But, at the end of the day, the former Manchester United trainee believes to finish as runners-up to Hearts would in itself represent a remarkable achievement for a club which was in such crisis.
He said: “I think all that talk of Hibs going to be involved at the bottom of the table was probably more to do with what had happened the season before. Everyone was still dealing with it, we hadn’t started the new season particularly well, so it was a ‘here we go again’ type of thing.
“It had been a really disappointing time for the club and the fans especially. They’d had to deal with an awful lot. We started the season slowly to say the least, especially our home form. We dropped points that kind of killed us a little bit and from then on we were always going to be playing catch-up.
“Hearts had such a big lead there was no way we were ever going to be able to put pressure on them. Credit to them, they kept doing what they’d been doing. For us it was the new manager coming in, players leaving, new players arriving, getting over the disappointment and the team taking time to gel.
“I think that was reflected not so much in our performances but definitely in our results.”
However, an eyebrow-raising 3-1 win over Rangers, still then very much the favourites for the title, on their own turf sparked a remarkable run which sent Hibs soaring towards the top end of the table although there have been hiccups along the way which led to many again writing them off.
Again and again, though, Stubbs players answered the critics who, more than once, accused them of losing their “bottle,” not least after their Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Falkirk.
Gray, though, simply shrugs off such barbs, saying: “People are always going to have their opinions and saying players don’t have the bottle is easy. They weren’t saying that, though, when we beat Rangers 4-0 here. It was mentioned again after the cup game but we turned up, played really well but it didn’t quite go for us on the day.
“People also seem to ignore the fact that in every game there are two teams on the park trying to win. No team has the right to just turn up and expect to win and I think that’s been evident all season in this league. We went to Alloa, were beaten and people were asking ‘how can you be beaten by them?’
“The fact is that Alloa played really well and deserved to win. They were the better team on the day. But anyone can beat anyone in this league. We have seen that numerous times and that’s one of the reasons why it’s been so interesting.”
If there have been disappointing results along the way, Gray insisted no-one should be questioning the spirit and character of Stubbs’ players, adamant that’s been demonstrated time and again as they have battled back from setbacks to keep themselves on track for the play-offs.
He said: “There was a time we were eight or nine points behind Rangers but clawed it back. They went in front of us and when we went to Raith Rovers we could have gone six points ahead of them but lost. It’s been interesting all season, Queen of the South and Falkirk have been right in it to the very end and the fact the play-off places weren’t decided until the week before the end of the season is credit to all the teams in the league.
“With the expection of Hearts, I’d imagine every team can look back over the season and think of games they should have won but drew and matches drawn they should have won. While we were on that long unbeaten run you were thinking to yourself if only we had started the season a little bit better.
“But, to be honest, I think it started a little bit too early for us. If it had started six months ago rather than nine months I’m sure it would have been a bit closer.
“Momentum, though, has been building and building, the manager putting his ideas across, the players buying into them and trying to chance the mentality of the whole club and trying to take it forward.”
The mental toughness of Stubbs’ players possibly underwent its greatest test in the wake of that semi-final defeat, the response being two wins and the six points which have taken Hibs to the brink of that second-place finish.
Gray said: “I might have been easy with that having happened and knowing Rangers were ahead of us in the league at that point for our season to fizzle out. But I don’t think it’s a lack of bottle, more a case of the great character the lads have. I am sure a lot of people would have expected us to be suffering from a little bit of a hangover from the disappointment of the semi, but to go to Livingston, who are fighting for their lives and were on a good unbeaten run, and not just get the result but a good performance says it all.
“Then we followed it up with the win over Alloa. The Scottish Cup run was a bonus although, obviously, we were all disappointed to go out at such a late stage, but the objective from the start of the season has always been to get promoted.
“That’s still a real possibility and I’m sure if you’d offered us one game to go and finish second we’d have taken it. It’s up to us, it’s in our hands and we have to be prepared to take it on Saturday although, of course, there will still be a lot of hard work ahead in the play-offs.”