Hibs skipper David Gray discusses mid-season doubts – and his desire to lift another trophy
As someone who takes pride from the fact that Hibs have made year-on-year progress ever since he became their first signing of the post-relegation era in summer 2014, David Gray is delighted that his team have managed to get back on an upward trajectory under Paul Heckingbottom.
In his first campaign at the club, the foundations of a team that would go on to flourish under Alan Stubbs and then Neil Lennon were built. Then came Scottish Cup glory the following season, and a Championship title triumph the year after that. The upward trend continued last term as Hibs marked their first season back in the top flight by finishing fourth and qualifying for Europe.
For long periods of the current campaign, it looked like the momentum of the previous four years was about to run out as Lennon’s team struggled to recover from the departure of key midfielders John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch and languished in the bottom six at the turn of the year.
A change of management, however, has served to re-energise the team and they now sit within striking distance of a return to the top four after a nine-game unbeaten run in the Premiership. Given the adversity they have had to overcome over the past year, a second successive top-six placing of any kind – particularly if they can finish above Hearts once more – will be viewed as further evidence that the club is in robust health and generally moving in the right direction.
Asked if he had doubts that the season-on-season progress was about to be disrupted when mid-campaign negativity engulfed the club, captain Gray said: “You always back yourself so I was never concerned about how the season was going. But, at the same time, there was a stage when we were sitting eighth and we’re thinking we have to be in the top six. When you’re not getting the results you want, the doubt starts to creep in. When we didn’t have a manager, there was uncertainty, not really knowing what is around the corner. It was important to stick together and keep working as hard as we could knowing we had a good run of fixtures coming up.
“You expect a reaction when a new manager comes in because you have players who were maybe out of the picture and it’s a clean slate for everybody, and boys in the team looking to impress the manager. We put a few wins together against teams around about us at the time. The motivation was to get into the top six and to get there with a game to spare was great.”
Given the calibre of players Hibs lost last summer, in addition to a string of injury problems, Gray concedes there was always likely to be some kind of drop-off. There is now a sense, however, that a new team – albeit with familiar personnel at the heart of it, particularly in defence – is emerging under the fresh leadership of Heckingbottom.
“When you lose the players we lost last season it’s always going to be a transition period,” he said. “But you look at the players who come in, we have maybe not tried to go like for like but we possibly have more strength in depth.
“You only need to look at the squad we have now, we have boys like Ryan Gauld on the bench as he comes back from injury. They can really boost us towards the end of the season. The most important thing is we have competition for places. When results are going well it’s great that the starting eleven are doing great, but the subs coming on are also doing well. And they are pushing us every day to make sure the players who are staying remain in the team.”
From fretting about the prospect of seeing the season out in the bottom six, Hibs now have four blockbuster top-six fixtures to conclude with. Currently fifth, they are within five points of fourth-place Kilmarnock and three clear of Hearts, whom they host on Sunday. The dual challenge of staying above their city rivals in the battle for bragging rights and chasing down Killie in the race for fourth and a potential Europa League qualifying berth ensures Hibs are likely to have something to play for right up until the last day of the campaign.
“It’s great,” said Gray. “At this stage of the season, you can sometimes be stuck in no-man’s land with nothing to play for – we have everything to play for. It’s great that there’s something on every single game and if we keep winning, every game is going to get bigger and bigger.
“That’s the way you want it to be towards the end of the season – there’s nothing worse than a season just petering out. You want it to be exciting. It gives the fans a real good end to the season and makes them want to come back excited about next season as well which is another important thing.”
While finishing ahead of Hearts will give supporters plenty to cheer about, Hibs are currently playing with so much confidence that Kilmarnock are the team the players are most concerned with. “We want to finish as high as we can, it doesn’t matter if it was Kilmarnock behind us or anyone else,” said Gray. “It happens to be Hearts at the minute but the way we have been since the manager has come in is ‘can we catch the team above us?’
“It’s Kilmarnock who are in our sights at the minute. We know we have a very difficult game against Hearts this weekend and we fully expect another tough match, but it’s another opportunity to close the gap on the team in front.”
It emerged this week that Gray had been rewarded with a new four-year contract at Hibs, which will take him well into his mid-30s. Despite the fact he is approaching his 31st birthday, Gray is eager to remain a first-pick at Hibs for seasons to come and is determined to lift more silverware after heading the historic Scottish Cup-winning goal against Rangers three years ago. “It’s not as if I am just going to take my foot off the gas and think I’m alright now for the next four years,” he said. “I want to be playing week in, week out because I know it’s a very short career. I want to achieve as much as I possibly can here. I want to win something else. It was a great feeling in 2016 winning something and I want to go on and do that again.
“I think we can. We have shown in one-off games that we’re capable of beating anyone. The league is going to be very difficult, Celtic have obviously been far superior for many years now. But at the start of every season there are two cup competitions and there’s no reason why we can’t win one. We showed in 2016 we can, and that has to be the objective every season.”