'I'm still hungry for more' - Hibs' David Gray eyeing another Scottish Cup as he reflects on 2016 and his future
Nearly four years and 11 months to the day his header evaded Wes Foderingham’s dive and nestled in the back of the Rangers net two minutes into injury time, the Easter Road side will today look to take another step forward on the road back to Hampden.
"Given I’m still playing, I’m not sure the magnitude of 2016 has really sunk in yet,” the 32-year-old says. “It’s not until you actually speak to people, and hear their stories about being to nine cup finals and never thinking they would see the day, that it starts to sink in a little bit.
"Apart from the birth of my children, it's the greatest thing ever. It's the sort of thing you dream about as a young boy playing in the park; scoring a last-minute winner in the cup final.
“To be 2-1 down with ten minutes to go and to come back and score the winner in the last minute to win 3-2 ... it's Roy of the Rovers stuff.”
Hungry for more
Such a key player in that cup run, Gray has been reduced to a watching brief this season, stepping in for matches during the Betfred Cup group stage when Hibs had four defenders away on international duty and playing just ten minutes of Scottish Premiership football as a late substitute in the 2-2 draw with Celtic in November.
Should he line up at Stair Park this lunchtime it will be his first start since the 1-0 Betfred Cup group win at Forfar Athletic in October in which he scored a late winner – with a header, appropriately enough – but a lack of action hasn’t dulled his desire to add to his medal collection.
"Once I stop playing completely and I take a step back from the game, I think me and all the players involved on May 21 2016 will realise what we did, and what a great achievement it was,” he adds.
“But while I'm still playing I'm hungry for more, so going on and trying to do it again is at the forefront of my mind. I know what it means to the whole club and the fans.”
‘You want to play as often as you can’
With two years left on his contract, the thought of leaving Hibs might have crossed the captain’s mind given his lack of game-time, but Gray has always been a team player and is insistent that, while desperate to be contributing on the park, the club’s goals have to come first.
“I’ve had individual chats with the manager and my family. It’s frustrating; I want to be playing. You want to play as often as you can,” he admits.
“If I get a chance, I’ll back myself to try and stay in the team. That’s what’s driving me forward. But I’m also aware of the situation we’re in as a club.
“The most important thing is that as a group we try to achieve what we set out to do at the start of the season, which is to finish third and hopefully win a cup.
"The positive I can take from this season is that I’ve managed to train every single day and I’ve been fit all season. I’ve not been able to do that for the last couple of years.”
Might a Scottish Cup game against a team 34 places below Hibs in the SPFL convince Jack Ross to shuffle his pack and give Gray that long-awaited run-out?
"I don’t know what the manager is going to do. There might be a few changes but this close to the end of the season the team is doing really well so it’s all about winning games and having a strong finish. My future can wait until the end of the season.”
The Easter Road defence has been rightly praised with a string of strong displays and clean sheets rewarded by international call-ups for Paul Hanlon, Paul McGinn, Josh Doig, and Ryan Porteous. It's a far cry from the criticism of a couple of years ago …
"The defence as a whole have been fantastic and you’ve got a back three or four that’s done really well at times,” Gray agrees.
“It’s great that they’ve managed to get themselves in the Scotland set-up as well. I think it’s well deserved.
“It makes the manager’s decision a little bit easier when you’ve got players playing week-in, week-out who have that understanding from playing together all the time.
"Guys like myself and Darren are training every single day and pushing them on as much as they can to make sure when they do drop their standards, or are not quite at the level, then there are players ready to step in."
‘We have to believe we can win’
Just two games stand between Hibs and a return to Hampden for yet another cup semi-final. For some squad members it will be their third trip to the national stadium in just over six months; for others a ninth or tenth appearance. Gray knows all about losing and winning cup finals in G42 so how does the current Hibs team stack up against the heroes of 2016?
"Do I think Hibs can win the cup again? Absolutely. We showed at the weekend we are capable of matching the likes of Celtic and Rangers,” he insists.
“We go into these games believing we can win, the same way we went into the 2016 final believing we could win.
"We've shown that we're able to compete with anybody on our day.
“To reach Europe and win a trophy has been a goal from the outset this season. There’s a strong possibility we could do that.
"Stranraer will be a difficult game but it’s at the front of our minds that it could be a fantastic season and one we’ve done really well in so far.”