Will Hibs gamble on Gray pay off? Both running risk as Cup-winning captain leaps into management

Hibs captain David Gray celebrates scoring the winner in the 2016 Scottish Cup final against Rangers. Picture: Alan Harvey / SNS GroupHibs captain David Gray celebrates scoring the winner in the 2016 Scottish Cup final against Rangers. Picture: Alan Harvey / SNS Group
Hibs captain David Gray celebrates scoring the winner in the 2016 Scottish Cup final against Rangers. Picture: Alan Harvey / SNS Group
Internal promotion of favoured frontrunner comes with no guarantees

Hibs to the core. Deeply embedded in a club where his image – THAT image – is prominently displayed as both a reminder of happier times and a challenge to the new generation.

Seeking approval by association may well have been a factor in the imminent appointment of David Gray, pending final formalities, as Hibernian’s fifth manager in a little over two-and-a-half years. Everyone at Easter Road understands the importance of making a popular appointment. And few can match ‘Sir David’ in any poll of supporter sentiment.

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But there is more to this decision than simply diverting fans by handing a battlefield commission to a favourite from yesteryear. No club appoints a rookie manager – and Gray definitely falls into that category, despite having done four tours of duty as caretaker head coach – without being fully convinced of their plans and ability.

Unable to campaign on his past record as a coach, Gray had to project images of a bright tomorrow. He needed to convince Hibs – and specifically new sporting director Malky Mackay – that he has a blueprint capable of lifting this team closer to the business end of the Scottish Premiership.

By choosing the former Scottish Cup-winning captain as manager, Hibs have gambled on promise over proven ability. Gray, whose dramatic late winner in the 2016 final meant so much to so many, is taking just as big a risk.

Because he isn’t naïve. He understands the consequences of getting this wrong. He knows that even the God-like status of Franck Sauzee wasn’t enough to save the Frenchman following a rocky start to his first and only managerial gig.

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It goes without saying that Gray has confidence in his ability to get the job done. And clearly Mackay, at least, shares that confidence in a candidate who has been at or near the top of the wanted list since the process began.

What should Hibs fans expect from a David Gray team, then? Well, he laid it all out before the public jury not long after Nick Montgomery left the building, describing the “non-negotiables” he would/will be demanding from players and revealing: “That’s 100% effort and commitment all the time; whether that’s sprinting back or sprinting forwards. And just a collective team performance where everyone is doing everything they possibly can to make sure that you’re harder to beat.

“I think, over the time, I’ve probably had a crash course in coaching. I went straight into working with Jack Ross, which was great, because I went from transitioning from a player to understanding what he wanted his coaching staff to do, and I was still delivering things I’d done before as a player.

“When Shaun (Maloney) came in, it was a completely different way of working. And every single manager has been completely different in the way they want to work. 

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“I’ve tried, on my journey so far, to take things on board that I believe are good, what I maybe don’t agree with - because everybody’s got an opinion - but it’s about forming what I believe is the way I would want to do things. I think I’ve tweaked it along the way because I learn things all the time. But my principles and my identity remain the same.”

The fact that Gray had already completed his UEFA A Licence – and is now enrolled on the Pro Licence with the Scottish FA, pursuing the highest qualification in global coaching – pointed to ambitions beyond simply acting as number three or four to whoever Hibs brought in next. And, while some might have advised him to go out and learn the job in a less pressurised environment, he was never going to put himself out of the running for this position, was he?

Gray (left) and axed boss Montgomery in happier times at East Mains.Gray (left) and axed boss Montgomery in happier times at East Mains.
Gray (left) and axed boss Montgomery in happier times at East Mains. | SNS Group

"If anyone has ambitions of being a manager, it is a very difficult job at any level, but to have the opportunity to manage at a club like Hibs, it is one of the top clubs in Scotland - the facilities, the fanbase, how passionate it is,” said Gray, when asked about the role last month. “I've obviously been very fortunate to play for the club and experience ultimate highs and that's why I feel it is such an attractive job for any manager because of the size and level that it operates at. I think it's a good opportunity for anybody.

“One thing you have as a football player is responsibility. The club, the fans deserve it, they come and pay their money every single week, home and away, they follow this club everywhere. And they deserve a product on the pitch everyone is going to fight for.”

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Making Hibs tougher to break down will win Gray some plaudits. Putting more emphasis on grit and fight is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a guaranteed vote winner.

But, at some point, his team will have to play a bit of football. Modelling Hibs on AN Other Scottish Premiership club, a collection of hard-running athletes who go direct at every opportunity, will only get him so far with supporters who expect a little flash with their blood-and-thunder entertainment.

Much will depend on recruitment. And that is inevitably related to how involved Bill Foley and his Black Knight group have been in this appointment, which they’ve presumably approved; their entire model is built on believing that players are getting proper coaching in the right environment, regardless of which club in the ‘stable’ they join.

In terms of how this is going down with Hibs fans, well, you can’t just lump such a disparate group of individuals together in one school of thought. There are plenty already willing to decry Gray as the easy or cheap appointment, his promotion taken as a sign of diminished ambition on the part of a club supposedly destined to become the undisputed third force in Scottish football.

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From the manager’s perspective, the Hibs job has rarely been the most stable of positions, even before the recent spike in drive-by sackings. Alan Stubbs – before Montgomery, Lee Johnson, Maloney, Ross, Paul Heckingbottom and even Neil Lennon - was the last manager to leave the building entirely of his own volition.

Having served as either a player or coach under all of the above, Gray clearly understands the precarious nature of the role. And he’s taken it on anyway. Gambling almost as much as Hibs on the partnership paying off.