FUNNY people, footballers. Tell them they are going away to play a big club that they haven’t beaten on their own patch for four years and who have already defeated them this season and who are much higher up the league, and you might expect nervous apprehension, at least. In the case of David Gray of Hibs, however, the prospect of playing Rangers tonight has him positively beaming – the clue being in the words “big club”.
“This is the kind of game I joined Hibs to play in,” said Gray. “When I was at Burton Albion there was nothing like playing at stadiums like Ibrox.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if you said five years ago Rangers and Hibs would be playing in the second tier. With Rangers one of the biggest in Britain you’d never have expected to see what happened there.
“And in my lifetime Hibs have always been up there. But it is what it is now and one of the reasons I was so excited about coming up here to sign was to play for such a big club against top clubs, even if it’s not in the top division.”
Edinburgh-born Gray remembers some of the glory days at Ibrox. Growing up while Rangers were compiling the latter part of their nine-in-a-row title fest, he went to Ibrox, and elsewhere, just to savour top-class football – his ambition from childhood simply to be part of that milieu.
“I remember going as a boy,” said the 26-year-old product of Manchester United’s youth academy. “I used to go just to sample the atmosphere and the arena.
“I was a football fan more than anything else and just wanted to go to Ibrox and see what it was like. I went to a couple of Old Firm games as well when the likes of Gazza and Laudrup were playing.
“I just went with my dad. We jumped through from Edinburgh on a train.
“When I got older I just wanted to sample it because I’d seen it on the television. I did the same with Celtic Park where I went to the Manchester United game in the Champions League.
“I wanted to be a professional footballer so I just wanted to go and see the best.”
Gray is correct in that nobody could have foreseen the circumstances which mean that the Edinburgh side have not won at Ibrox since November 2010 – four Hibs managers ago, if you want to put it that way. They threatened to upset the Glasgow club in early August in the Petrofac Training Cup, but Danny Handling’s dismissal transformed that match and Rangers ran out 2-1 winners after extra time.
That feeling of “so near yet so far” is one reason why the much-travelled Gray – including loans, he has already notched up appearances for nine different clubs – is relishing the chance to get revenge over Rangers. He said: “We played well the last time we went to Ibrox but decisions went against us a bit.
“Everyone feels hard done by every now and again but you hope by the end of the season you get a decision you maybe shouldn’t have got. We still took confidence from it and we’ve got nothing to fear playing there.
“We think we’re good enough to get a result against anyone and the preparation will be based on getting a result.
“The good thing is that neither of us will park the bus so it should make for a good spectacle with two good teams trying to play football. We won’t go to Ibrox looking to fight and scrap for a result. Our gameplan will be to go and try and win the game doing what we like to do.
“Both teams will be fitter from our last meeting. We’ve got a few new players since then and we’re slowly getting there, the more we work together.”
One of those new players, Dominique Malonga, positively shone in Hibs’ League Cup victory over Premiership club Ross County in Dingwall last week, not least because his performance was reassuring to the Hibs players and fans in the wake of the long-term injury suffered by Farid El Alagui.
“We thought Farid El Alagui would be a big loss but Dominique Malonga has come in and done really well,” said Gray. “The more games he plays and the longer he’s been at the club the better he’s getting.
“He joined us late but he’s looking good the more he gets used to the players. It’s more competition for Farid when he comes back but that can only be good.
“He will thrive on going to Ibrox. On his debut he grabbed the ball for his penalty and free kick. He wants to score goals and you want that in a striker and hopefully he can take that into Ibrox.”
Gray described the win in Dingwall as “hopefully a turning point”, and there’s one thing he wants his colleagues to do.
“We need to show a more nasty side,” said Gray. “We’ve been soft in defensive areas for certain goals and need to cut that out.”