Hibs coach David Gray learning the fast way as he adapts to Lee Johnson's way of working
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It whizzed past in a blur. Appointed by Jack Ross after hanging up his boots as a player, Gray was only a few months into the role when his boss was sacked and soon found himself in charge of the team for an interim period which included the Premier Sports Cup final against Celtic.
Shaun Maloney came in with a different philosophy and way of working for Gray to adapt to, only to be shown the door four months later. That resulted in the 34-year-old taking interim charge again until the end of last season.
Lee Johnson came in and kept faith with the club legend, integrating him as part of a backroom team that also includes assistants Adam Owen and Jamie McAllister. The only real constant over Gray’s first year was change itself, but he now feels he is reaping the rewards in terms of his own development.
“Last season was disappointing from a footballing point of view, but selfishly for me it involved working with three top coaches who are very good at what they do, so I’ve learned, very quickly, three different ways of doing things in my first year in coaching,” he explained. “I am thoroughly enjoying the new regime and how it is working. Adam and Macca have taken time to explain things to me and help and I hope I’m adding something to the mix as well. That’s what you need to be able to do as a coach. You need to adapt and learn all the time. Just like as a player, you want to better yourself and study different things.
“There is always uncertainty. Nothing surprises you in football, so it was nice to know that the manager wanted to keep me around. Personally, I was looking forward to the challenge of working with new people, but I also knew Macca from when we played together for a brief spell at Preston. I met him a couple of times before we started pre-season. He took the time to explain the way the manager wants to work and his philosophy. From day one, the manager has involved me and I’m really enjoying the responsibility.
“It’s more of a gang approach, as the gaffer would call it. He likes different voices rather than the same voice all the time just working with defenders or attackers. He likes different voices, demands and ways of working from different coaches. It is working well.
“Everyone has their own beliefs on the way they want the game to be played. But we are very similar and on the same page. The manager decides the way we want to play, but he is very open to us as coaches expressing ourselves and getting our own message across.”
Gray comes across as someone who really feels he is making a difference. Someone who is being heard. The coaching staff, he says, are “all pulling in the same direction” and the players are buying into it as the positive results roll in. Four wins on the spin.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I fully believe in the squad,” he adds. “We’ve got a really good squad which has been added to over the summer, and a different way of working under the new management, which has been a fantastic learning curve for me. It’s a different way of working.
“Nobody is shying away from how we ended last season. It was a disappointing year, but something we did do was finish with a win on the last day of the season to give us momentum to try and take that into this season. The players came back knowing what they need to go and do. Everyone is working hard and we’re starting to see that on the pitch now.”
The manager’s high-press, high-intensity philosophy is different from the way both Ross and Maloney preferred to play. But Gray is enjoying working within those parameters, helping shape it and bed in, then seeing it start to work effectively on the pitch. Johnson’s ability to get his message across clearly has made an impression.
“He’s really honest with the players,” explains Gray. “He’s really clear in terms of what he is trying to achieve. He’s very much front foot and wants to try and win the ball back as high as he can and be aggressive in the way the team plays. He has said many times that he always wants to try and win all the time, which is great. That’s what players want.
"We are big on winning the ball back, high up the pitch as well. It's not just the back four. I think it's a real collective at the moment, so if we get a clean sheet it's down to everybody. It's a team effort.”
That team effort has propelled Hibs up to third in the league after four wins in a row and Gray insists staying there is a realistic proposition. But he speaks for everyone on the coaching staff when he says that it won’t be easy.
"Every day you want to try and be as good as you can, our objective every season has been to get into Europe. The club demands it, the fans demand it. The size of the club deserves to be in Europe but nothing is given to you. This league is very competitive. This season is very tight, anyone can beat anyone. We've started it really well but it's just a start. One game at a time.”
Gray knows that only too well.