Skipper David Gray believes Hibs have rediscovered the form which appeared to have deserted them, threatening to wreck a season which only a few weeks ago promised so much.
Yes, the “treble” of which head coach Alan Stubbs once talked is long gone, the Easter Road outfit’s collapse allowing Rangers to romp away with the Championship title while Alex Schalk’s last minute winner saw Ross County lift the League Cup rather than Gray himself.
But amid the doom and gloom which has descended upon the east end of Edinburgh, Gray insists there is a shaft of light sparked by that disappointing 2-2 draw against Falkirk which makes the Bairns favourites to take second place in the league and so ensure a shortened play-off programme.
Gray admitted it may sound strange, but he’s pinpointed that clash with Falkirk seven days ago as a turning point, Stubbs’ players, for 85 minutes, regaining that panache which had brought such plaudits earlier in the season even if those two late goals from David McCracken and Bob McHugh overshadowed everything that had gone before.
However, coming as it did just days after Hibs had suffered the embarrassment of losing to already relegated Alloa Athletic, the Wasps’ first home win of the season, Gray argued that both against Falkirk and again in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden as Dundee United fell victim to the Capital club for the second time, Hibs have shown they’re not prepared to allow their season slip away.
He said: “It was very disappointing to lose at Alloa but we knew we needed a strong performance against Falkirk and we did so for 85 minutes or so. We were on the front foot, looked confident, more like ourselves and we took our chances even if it was disappointing to lose those two late goals.
“We knew a lot of people would be saying Hibs have blown it again but our display that night, coming as it did only a couple of days after Alloa, shows the team spirit and character we have. We knew if we stood strong together, got back to basics and kept working hard – although we’d never stopped working hard – the benefits would come as they now are.”
That dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over United means a quick-fire Hampden return for Hibs to face Rangers who edged out Old Firm rivals Celtic in similar fashion 24 hours later, in the final on May 21 although the two sides will lock horns in the league for a fourth time at Easter Road tomorrow night with the hosts looking to trim Falkirk’s six-point advantage in what is a game in hand.
While many may see this latest encounter as a dress rehearsal for May 21, Gray insisted Hibs would simply be seeking a repeat of their victory over the Glasgow club at home earlier in the season.
He said: “It would be good timing to beat them again. Celtic were favourites, but Rangers have done very well this season. Days like Saturday are great occasions but it’s straight back to business as far as we are concerned. The most important thing still is promotion, the final will take care of itself when it comes along.
“We know we are capable of beating anyone. There’s a real togetherness in our dressing-room, we’ve shown character in coming back in games and against Premiership sides in both the League Cup and Scottish Cup. We’re in a second major final and that’s massive credit to the lads, the manager and his staff.
“We know that people are always going to knock us when we don’t win games we are expected to win. Hibs are a massive club and we should be winning these games. It’s difficult when results aren’t going our way, but we feel it every bit as much as the fans.”
Although Hibs had already seen off both Hearts and Scottish Cup holders Inverness Caley before facing relegated United, Gray admitted they had to dig deep to claim a sixth victory of the season over opposition from the top flight, a fact many at Easter Road believe their critics are only too willing to overlook.
Pointing out that their quarter-final replay win in Inverness had come only days after the disappointment of losing to Ross County, Gray said: “We said straight away at Hampden that day we wanted an opportunity to get back and beating Caley gave us that chance.
“It was a bit of a rollercoaster against United, but I was delighted to be on the winning side, leaving with a better feeling than last time.”
Hibs might have found the going a bit easier had Jason Cummings taken the opportunity that first half presented, the youngster blowing the chance by attempting a “Panenka” but succeeding only in putting the ball high over the bar.
Gray said: “I think we were on top at that point but would we have gone on to win it more comfortably had Jason scored? We’ll never know. Jason is a confident boy, if he scores it’s great. If he misses, he’s a fool. Unfortunately it went over.
“However, it took a lot of courage to put himself forward to take a penalty in the shoot-out having missed that one but credit to him for tucking away the winner.”
It was, though, Conrad Logan who grabbed all the headlines, the goalkeeper, signed as emergency cover after Mark Oxley was ruled out through suspension, thrown in for his first match in 16 months only to pull off a string of outstanding saves before going on to keep out United’s first two attempts from the spot.
Gray said: “It was a big call from the manager, a tough decision to make but one that was totally vindicated. Conrad took his chance with both hands. It was looking as if one goal would win it for either side, a wonder strike or a mistake but Conrad made great saves and then really put pressure on the United players by saving their first two penalties.
“All the pressure is on the takers, goalkeepers can do what they want, go whichever way they fancy but having made those two saves he made it easier for our boys.
“Obviously we were delighted, but the United boys would be disappointed. I know myself just how much they’d be hurting. I was in their position last year when Radoslav Cierzniak saved my penalty in sudden death to knock us out of the League Cup.”