BY ALAN TEMPLE , Algarve
HIBERNIAN captain David Gray has already ensured one lucky youngster will enjoy an unforgettable 2018.
Now he is determined to do the same for every supporter of the Easter Road outfit by bringing the Scottish Cup back to Leith.
Gray, scorer of the winning goal when they lifted the trophy against Rangers two years ago, is afforded daily reminders of the enormity of the achievement, whether walking the streets of Edinburgh or checking in luggage at the airport prior to travelling to Iceland for a break with wife, Hayley, last week.
However, appreciation of the victory, and fans’ tales of the day Hibs ended a 114-year hoodoo, never gets old for Gray. He revealed a letter from fan Calan Clarkson was particularly special, with the eight-year-old sending the skipper a hand-written note thanking him for winning the competition.
Calan’s mum, Alana, took to Twitter to thank Gray after the former Manchester United and Burton Albion defender responded in turn.
“I got a letter recently from a young lad and I wrote back to him – and his mum said it had made his 2018,” Gray said. “He wrote a wee personal note to say thanks for winning the Cup. I wrote back thanking him for his support and I also signed his letter. It was the least I could do.
“It’s a great feeling, a special feeling, to have created so many memories for everyone. There are guys who come over and say ‘my dad went to so many cup finals with Hibs and we did not win so thank you very much.’ You hear how much it means to them all. We were so fortunate as players to be involved in that.
“People ask if I get fed up hearing about it but I love hearing everyone’s story. They are all so different, unique and special to them.”
Gray’s status as a Hibs legend is assured albeit, as he acknowledges, that will only truly hit home when he has hung up his boots and can reflect upon the moment his header made it 3-2 against Rangers and ended a curse stretching back to 1902.
However, that triumph has done little to sate his appetite for silverware.
“Imagine we won it twice!” he smiled. “There’s not reason why not. We have a good squad and we’ve had good success in the cups over recent years. We believe we are good enough to win any game on our day. At our best, we are even good enough to compete against the likes of Celtic. We have that winning mentality.”
Indeed, Gray can pinpoint the exact afternoon Hibs cultivated that ‘winning mentality’. February 7, 2016 at Tynecastle and Alan Stubbs’ Hibees were two goals down at half-time against Hearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.
However, the emboldening second period which followed – with strikes by Jason Cummings and Paul Hanlon securing a replay – sowed the seeds for what was to come in May. They swept Hearts aside in the replay, before defeating Inverness and Dundee United on the way to downing Rangers in the final.
“I remember that well, we were 2-0 down – but were well on top and did not deserve to losing,” he continued. “The manager told us a goal would change it and that if we got one we would get two. That’s how it turned out.
“That was the big turning point. We really believed we would take them back to Easter Road and win. The mentality shifted. I believe that game was the catalyst for everything. It changed the mindset at the club.”
As fate would have it, if Hibs are to repeat the feat they will once again need to eliminate Hearts. Indeed, derby day is threatening to become Groundhog Day; the rivals have drawn each other in four of the last seven Scottish Cup campaigns.
“That’s fine with us. If it keeps going the way it has the past couple of seasons, we’ll take that,” smiled Gray, reflecting on a nine-game unbeaten run against the Jambos.
Gray simply wants to be part of the fixture, having only made 12 appearances this term – the last coming in November – due to a persistent knee complaint, which he played through for a period. Boss Neil Lennon even stated the demands he placed on the defender were ‘unfair’.
However, after a much needed period of rest he is hungrily anticipating the second half of the campaign.
“It was niggling away and it was getting worse and worse,” explained Gray, part of Hibs’ winter training camp in the Algarve. “It got to the point where it was becoming too much. That’s when it was taken out of our hands and I had to change the strategy a little bit.
“The break came at the right time for me and now I can get it right for a busy time at the end of January.”