Hibs captain David Gray understands situation but is ready to be called upon after cup victories
Like the responsible kid left in charge by parents while they enjoy a break, club captain David Gray was tasked with ensuring that Hibs’ season did not veer off track while a host of first team regulars were away on international duty.
Rising to head home Stevie Mallan’s sweet delivery as time ebbed away at Forfar on Tuesday night, his late winner was enough to commandeer the maximum nine points from their three Betfred Cup group games.
It moved them top of Group B, with one game remaining, and means that even if Dundee - who they play in the final round of fixtures next month - were to overhaul them, and deny them one of the seeded spots in the next round, they look a decent bet to at least make it through as one of the best runners-up.
With a severely stretched squad, the onus was still on the Premiership side to deliver against their lower league opponents, despite relatively limited game time under their belts.
In the end, while some of the performances failed to thrill and several players passed up the opportunity to force a selection conundrum for manager Jack Ross when league business resumes this weekend, they still did what was needed to further the club’s cup ambitions.
For Gray, who has had to bide his time due to injuries, lockdown and the form of his squad mates, the return to the fray was welcome, although the physical demands of three tough games in the space of just six days tested his capacity for recovery.
“We knew coming in it would be really difficult. Three games in six days, when we were stretched so much … credit to the lads who were able to bag another win. We did what we needed to do and credit to the boys for grinding out another win.
“At the start of every season we go into it thinking we want to finish in Europe and win a cup.
“I think we have shown this season we are a match for anyone on our day and in a cup competition that’s what you need.
“We have started the season really well, it’s a good start and we have to keep it going. We can’t look too far ahead and get carried away with ourselves, it’s about keeping doing the things that have worked for us so far.
“We want to really push on and see where it takes us.”
To do that they will require back up from the whole squad. A leaner group than maybe Ross would prefer due to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic, the likelihood is the majority will be called on again.
Gray is determined to prove himself an asset when he is. Organising and making demands of the makeshift side in recent games, while his role in the middle of the defence, alongside Darren McGregor, stifled his trademark gallops up and down the right flank, on Tuesday night, the experienced duo used their knowledge and will to win to help keep a clean sheet long enough for Mallan to conjure up his moment of quality. And when he did, Gray was the man attacking it to nod into the net.
“It was a great delivery from Stevie and that’s what he gives you when he’s in the team. He’s on the money all the time, and that’s the quality he’s got. He practices hard at them all the time so it’s no surprise they come off like that as often as they do.
“Personally, I was glad to get some game time and come through three games in six days.
“It has been a long time since we managed to do that, get the minutes in, and it was great to do that and come through it unscathed.
“Hopefully we have put ourselves closer to being in contention. If called upon we are fitter and stronger and ready. For us, it’s about being ready when the manager calls on us.”
Until two-thirds of this season’s regular starting backline answered the call of Scotland boss Steve Clarke, Gray and McGregor had spent the season on the bench, watching and waiting and moving to fill the void, even temporarily, was a joy for the man who will always be synonymous with Hibs’ cup success.
Now aged 32 he is wise enough to know that sentiment rarely buys a starting place in football and, with one eye on moving into management eventually, he accepts that the form of the side that has taken the team to third in the league table with a quarter of the league season gone, have earned manager Jack Ross’ selection loyalty.
“I’m desperate to play all the time and when you’re fit you always want to play but at the same time I am realistic enough to understand that the boys are flying. They have all been doing really well.
“Defensively they have been fantastic and that has been shown by Steve Clarke calling the boys up to the Scotland squad - and rightly so.
“They have been brilliant all season so for the likes of myself and Darren McGregor, we know we have to be patient and as professional as we can so when we’re called upon we’re ready.
“There are big games coming up, but first we have a big game at Ross County this weekend.
“Every game is a massive game, and when you are being successful and winning games then everyone is desperate to play. To be honest, it’s all about being ready and being focused on one game at a time.
“To be as successful as we want to be, we have to be going to places like Ross County and winning. So, we’ll get the boys back from international duty, see where we are and get ready for another game.”
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