David Gray explained that the Hibs squad is now so strong that nobody’s place is safe.
The captain is one of several mainstays from the past few seasons who has found himself on the bench this term, with Lewis Stevenson, Dylan McGeouch and Liam Fontaine among this number.
In addition, Lithuanian internationalists Vykintas Slivka and Deivydas Matulevicius and former St Johnstone talisman Danny Swanson have also spent time on the substitutes’ bench in recent weeks.
Gray insists this is testament to the strength of Neil Lennon’s squad and is a situation being viewed in a positive light by the players, who are all striving to ensure they are in the starting XI each week.
“I think it can only be a good thing,” said Gray. “It’s the old cliche about the manager having a headache but I’m sure it’s one he’s enjoying. There’s real strength in depth right across the board and that’s showing in training every day. The level is through the roof because everyone’s fighting for positions.
“It’s a long season and there’s going to be injuries and suspensions. Everybody knows they’re going to be required at some point – it’s just about the boys in the team doing as well as they can to stay in, and if you’re not involved, working as hard as you can so you’re ready when called upon.”
Gray was suspended for the opening Premiership match of the season against Partick Thistle and, with summer signing Steven Whittaker impressing in his absence in the 3-1 win over the Jags, the Scottish Cup-winning skipper had to sit out the next two games against Rangers and Hamilton Accies. Gray has reclaimed his place in the side for the last two games, with Whittaker instead moving across to left-back and taking the place of Stevenson in back-to-back 1-1 draws away to Dundee and St Johnstone.
“Being suspended for the first game of the season and then when the lads won, that’s football,” said Gray, reflecting on his early-season omission. “The lads played really, really well and I fully understood that if they kept playing the way they were playing for the full season I wouldn’t be playing this season.
“That’s just the way it goes. I had to be patient, I had to continue to work as hard as I could in training, knowing that if something came up or there was an injury or the manager asked me to play I would be ready to play. I got the opportunity away to Dundee and I’ve played alright in the last couple of games. It’s a good thing to have to keep you on your toes, knowing that if you’re not performing somebody’s more than capable of coming in and taking your place.”
Gray insists he will never allow himself to believe that his status as captain guarantees him a start. “Just because you’re captain doesn’t give you a divine right to play,” he said. “I think competition for places is so important all over the pitch. It keeps you on your toes but, more importantly, it gives the manager a real choice. It spoils him a little bit and sometimes makes his decision harder.
“When everybody’s fully fit he’ll have problems naming a squad of 18, never mind an 11. He must have a selection headache at times, but it’s up to the boys that are in to play as well as they can play and for the boys who are not playing to continue to work as hard as they can knowing they could be called upon at any time.”