David Gray admits Hibs are relishing the thrill of the chase.
When Paul Heckingbottom took over as head coach in February, the Easter Road side were down in eighth place. Over the past two months, they have leapfrogged Motherwell and St Johnstone to move into six.
Now Hearts, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen are all in their sights. Hibs have a chance to jump into fifth place if they can beat their city rivals at Tynecastle and captain Gray admits the constant incentive of pegging back the teams above them has helped them maintain a seven-game unbeaten run in the league and secure a top-six berth.
“We’ve used that as a motivation for every game since the new manager’s been here,” said Gray. “It’s always been about chasing the team in front of us. We’ve got a chance to go above Hearts this weekend. That was also the incentive last Friday when we were at Livingston. We’ve just got to keep asking the question and try to keep the momentum going.
“If we can get the three points at Tynecastle and go above Hearts, we would then be looking to catch Aberdeen or Kilmarnock, whoever happens to be directly above us. Now that we’ve managed to secure our place in the top six, we’ve got all the teams above us to play again, and Hearts twice. It’s exciting times. If you went back eight weeks, a lot of people would be questioning whether we could make it but credit to the lads for getting to where we have.”
To climb into fifth this weekend, Hibs will have to do something they haven’t managed since May 2013 – win at the home of their city rivals. Not since Ross Caldwell’s late goal secured a 2-1 win for Pat Fenlon’s team have the Hibees support been able to celebrate a victory in Gorgie.
“A win at Tynecastle is definitely overdue,” said Gray. “It’s been a while but the games we’ve had there have all been close. It’s going to be a really tough game. Form is irrelevant for these games – the team that turns up on the day and settles quickest and implements the way they want to play the game more often than not gets the result. We want to start the game well and really take the game to Hearts.”
Although they haven’t won at Tynecastle for almost six years, some of the current Hibs team still recall the thrill of fighting back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in a Scottish Cup tie in 2016. Paul Hanlon’s stoppage-time equaliser was critical to Alan Stubbs’ team going on to win the trophy, and supporters still sing about that memorable moment to this day. The jubilant Hibs players had “Sunshine on Leith” blaring from the away dressing-room afterwards. Now Gray wants to experience the joy of victory in enemy territory. “That felt like a win,” said Gray, who was forced off by injury early in the second half. “I know it was a draw but if you looked at both sets of players at full time it was us who looked like we had won. But if you offered me now the chance to win at Tynecastle this weekend and move above Hearts, then absolutely! Do we go there with the confidence we can win against Hearts? Absolutely.
“We know these games are always tight but we know we have a chance to go above them and that is all the motivation we need. To go two points above them with another game against them to come would make for an exciting time, so hopefully we can go there and get a result.”
Heckingbottom’s swift impact was rewarded when he was this week named Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the month for March. Prior to the Yorkshireman’s arrival, the Easter Road side had looked on course to finish in the bottom six but now their campaign is now alive with possibilities.
“He’s obviously done a fantastic job – his record’s there for all to see,” said Gray. “The boys are enjoying it and we’re playing some good stuff at the moment. You could see on Wednesday that Kilmarnock came and showed us a lot of respect and made it really hard for us to break them down. We ended up cancelling each other out but we got a good point to secure the top six, which was the minimum we needed from this season.
“There’s no grey areas with the manager. He’s told us exactly what he expects from us and what we can expect from him. It’s about standards and trying to improve every day as a team, not just on the pitch but off it as well. We’re trying to build a winning mentality all the time. These games coming up are all big games now but if we hadn’t made the top six, the season would have started to fizzle out with nothing to play for. Now we’ve got everything to play for so hopefully if we can keep winning, each game will just become bigger and bigger. It’s an exciting time.”
Hearts and Hibs this week joined forces to launch online videos accompanied by the slogan Respect The Rivalry in an effort to ensure there is no repeat of the unsavoury incidents that marred the previous derby at Tynecastle, when former Hibs manager Neil Lennon was struck by a coin and Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal was struck by a fan. Gray is hopeful that the passion of the two sets of supporters doesn’t spill over today. “These games are always lively,” he said. “There’s animosity, there’s tackles flying in and you want to the atmosphere to be special. You want the fans to be noisy and passionate and get on at the referee if they want. That’s all part of a derby. But there’s a line that it is unacceptable to cross. Everyone knows that. Hopefully both sets of fans can get right behind their teams in the right manner – then we put in a performance that sends our fans home happy.”