No-one would be surprised to hear David Gray has drifted off to sleep on recent nights with a recurring dream – leading his Hibs team-mates up those steps at Hampden to collect the League Cup.
But as much as he admits that to win tomorrow would be the greatest achievement in his career to date, the Hibs captain insists he has never allowed such a thought to enter his mind, adamant that much hard work lies ahead, in fact equal to that which has already been put in to engineer tomorrow’s showdown with Ross County.
The Dingwall side caused something of a shock in beating champions Celtic just 24 hours after Alan Stubbs’ players had clinched their place in the final by beating St Johnstone – the third Premiership team in succession defeated by them.
As such, Gray believes both clubs probably have the opposition they’d have wanted, saying: “If it had been Celtic it would have been a different challenge for us – we’d have certainly been the underdogs.
“Possibly we both feel that’s who we’d have wanted. Both sides will go into the game thinking they have an opportunity to win which, hopefully, will make it a really good game.
“Obviously it would be the greatest achievement in my career so far if we were to win – it would be great. It’s my first competitive final, one I’m really looking forward to. But first and foremost we have to approach the game properly and understand it’s going to be a very tough game.”
The fact Hibs defeated St Johnstone at Tynecastle has been seen by some as an omen, a repeat of the 2007 semi-final when Hibs went on to lift the trophy following a 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock, one which sparked an emotionally charged rendition of Sunshine on Leith.
Gray has had a taste of such a reaction, he and his team-mates drinking it all in after the Scottish Cup replay victory over Hearts as the fans belted out the club’s unofficial anthem.
He said: “I received six or seven texts from my mates sending me a link to the video and saying it must have been great to be out there. The fans were fantastic and they’ll be the same tomorrow at Hampden in their numbers.
“Lewis Stevenson has been there and done it but he said the noise at the end of the derby was louder than that day back in 2007 and if it’s even louder tomorrow it will be something.
“The fact it was St Johnstone and Tynecastle again in the semi means it would be nice if history were to repeat itself and we were to go on and win – but we have a real tough game.”
Gray’s refusal to take anything for granted is backed by experience, the right back pointing out how, having beaten Montrose, Hibs struggled to get past League One Stranraer in the next round, doing so only courtesy of an own goal.
Although he didn’t play that day, he said: “I remember watching it. We dominated the game as you would expect but they made it very difficult for us. It proved that old footballing adage to be spot on, that it doesn’t matter how you get there so long as your name is in the hat for the next round.
“You see it in every cup competition, teams struggling against underdogs. That’s the drama of the cup, you have 90 minutes and they have nothing to lose.
“It was one of those games that could have thrown up a shock result. We were firm favourites, expected to win so they were a real danger.”
Hibs, though, were very much the underdogs when they were drawn to face Aberdeen, again at home, the Dons having made a stunning start to the season and pitching up in Edinburgh unbeaten.
However, late goals from Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga caused an upset and Gray said: “They were doing well, but we saw it as an opportunity to test ourselves against a very good Premiership side.
“That’s where we want to be, that was our first test to see how close we were. We knew we were as good side, but we had to go and prove it and on the night we did really well. It was fully deserved and we took confidence from it.”
Dundee United, who’d beaten Hibs on penalties after an epic 3-3 draw at Easter Road at the same quarter-final stage last season, were comprehensively beaten, Gray setting his side on the way to a 3-0 win with the opening goal.
He said: “We were going into games knowing we are a good side and that they’d know they were in for a tough game. We respect them, but we know on our day we can beat anyone.”
St Johnstone represented a different proposition, a neutral venue after four successive home ties, and a test of the character of Stubbs’ players as they conceded their first goal of the competition, Joe Shaugnessy cancelling out Jason Cummings’ early penalty before John McGinn claimed the winner.
Gray said: “We’d started the game well as we had against Aberdeen and United. We were controlling it so to lose a goal straight after scoring was disappointing. When you score you are at your most vulnerable.
“Ideally we’d have got to half-time at least 1-0 up. It was a test of character but we have been in that position three or four times this season and shown we have that in abundance. We never allowed it to get our heads down and we drove on again to get the second.
“They started throwing everything forward to push for an equaliser and you saw our defensive side. We’ve had a good number of clean sheets and that’s what we have been working on.”
Newly-relegated Hibs sprang their own surprise on Ross County last season when they travelled to Dingwall in the League Cup and stunned the Staggies with two goals from the now departed Malonga. However, Gray insisted nothing can be read into that result. “It’s an entirely different scenario. They were on a poor run at the time but this is a completely different game.
“They are a different team, picking up some great results as we saw with their win against Celtic and we are a completely different animal this season.”
Given Hibs’ record against Premiership sides this season – four played and four defeated – Gray believes the fact the Capital club is currently battling to escape the Championship at the second time of asking hasn’t been a factor in amassing that formidable record.
He said: “I don’t think any of the teams we have played have been complacent. They’ve not come to Easter Road thinking ‘this is a Championship side’. We are at the minute, but I think the top four in the Championship would hold their own in the Premiership.”
Just as it doesn’t matter how victory in a cup tie is achieved, Gray admitted he doesn’t care how Hibs do so this time – just as long as they do.
He said: “Jason Cummings has been scoring plenty, but cup finals can often throw up the most unlikely of heroes so I’m not bothered who it is so long as it’s someone in a green and white shirt.
“To be honest, just to get to the cup final is a great achievement. But if you don’t turn up you won’t get anything on the day. Turn up and you get what you deserve.”