The return to fitness of inspirational captain David Gray could hardly be more timely for Hibs.
The Easter Road side are striving to overcome a period of adversity after finishing 2018 with just two wins from their last 13 matches. Languishing eighth in the Scottish Premiership, they must also now contend with the dual loss of Efe Ambrose, their best player this season, and Martin Boyle, their most threatening attacker this season. The influential Nigerian defender triggered a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for pastures now, while the recently-capped Australia internationalist has had his season prematurely ended by injury.
The need for squad reinforcements at Hibs is clear, with only Ryan Gauld having been added thus far. While supporters are waiting eagerly to see who is drafted in to try and spark an upturn in the second half of the season, the availability of Gray in the coming months could be just as significant as any new arrival. Due to injuries, the skipper was restricted to just ten starts in all competitions throughout the entirety of 2018. Notably, Hibs didn’t lose any of those matches. Having made back-to-back substitute appearances against Rangers and Hearts in the last two games before the winter break, hopes at Easter Road are that Gray is now fully recovered from the muscle problem that stopped him in his tracks in October just as he looked to be regaining top form following the Achilles injury that ruled him out for the second half of the season. Former Hibs team-mate Liam Fontaine is in no doubt about how influential the right-back can be when he returns to Neil Lennon’s starting line-up.
“Dave’s a massively important player for Hibs because of the way he plays and approaches games,” the Englishman told the Evening News. “He’s very committed. He brings the bite and aggression that every team needs. You can’t just be a nice footballing team without having a bit of bite in there. The start to games are vital and Dave’s one of those players who will go into a challenge and win a 60/40 against and it lifts the whole team and the fans. Things like that can sometimes go unnoticed in the modern game but he brings that, along with his energy and quality down the right.”
Fontaine knows from experience how dependable Gray is and he believes his old colleague’s presence will help add renewed solidity to a Hibs defence which hasn’t looked as assured this season. The right-back will be hoping to make his first start for more than three and a half months in Saturday’s Scottish Cup fourth-round tie against Elgin City at Easter Road. “When you’re a defender you want to have players alongside you who you know you can rely on,” said Fontaine, currently at Ross County. “With Dave, you know that anything that comes down that right side, he is fully committed to stopping it. Anyone that watches him will agree that he’s such a committed player. It’s vital to have players like that as a base when you’re building your team.”
Gray is currently in his fifth season at Hibs after being brought to the club by Alan Stubbs in the summer of 2014. In addition to being a long-serving club captain, the 30-year-old is also a Hibs legend by virtue of his famous headed winner in the 2016 Scottish Cup final. Fontaine believes that stoppage-time goal, where he powered his head on to Liam Henderson’s corner, epitomised Gray’s never-say-die spirit.
“Dave, rightly so, is held in massive regard by the supporters,” said Fontaine. “His commitment was shown with that goal in the cup final. It was his drive and determination that got him the goal, the way he committed to the header. You don’t see that sort of good quality headed goals so often these days. Dave’s a big player for Hibs in both boxes. He’s one of those players you can hang your hat on in most games. He’s a great asset for Hibs. I’m just glad to see that he’s over the injury and can look forward to the last four months of the season. It’s been a frustrating time for Dave trying to get fit again because he had a couple of setbacks. He’ll be absolutely determined to get back in and you’ll see that in the way he plays.”
With Boyle, who was often used at right-wing-back, out injured and Greek right-back Charalampos Mavrias having left following the expiry of his short-term deal, Hibs could desperately do with Gray enjoying a sustained run of fitness as they look for a more settled look on the right side. While all bring different qualities to the party, none of Boyle, Mavrias or Steven Whittaker have managed to have the same combination of attacking thrust and defensive nous that Gray offers.
“He’ll be like a new signing when they get him back in,” added Fontaine. “He’ll bring a boost to the team naturally with his energy. I played with him loads of times and the energy he brings to the right-hand side is frightening. He gets up and down all game, you don’t find many in the Scottish game who can do that. Wing-back is probably his best position because you get more opportunity to use his attacking quality. He’s a very powerful guy. I bet there won’t be many people in the league who would fancy going in for a 50/50 with Dave.”