Twenty months on, David Gray is far from tiring of hearing about Hibs’ historic Scottish Cup triumph and what it means to Easter Road fans.
Gray was the Hampden hero, the club captain heading home a last-minute winner against Rangers to end the Edinburgh club’s agonising 114-year wait to get their hands on the trophy, sparking a green and white invasion of the pitch followed by more than 150,000 lining the streets the following day to see it paraded through the capital.
Even today he gets reminders virtually every day of that moment, the memories as vivid as they were on 21 May, 2016, undimmed by the passing of time. Only recently, Gray received a letter from Calan Clarkson, his reply prompting a tweet from his mum thanking him for “making an eight-year-old boy’s 2018”.
He said: “It’s a great feeling, a special feeling to have created so many memories for everyone. There are random things like walking through the airport and someone will come over to speak to you.
“From a football point of view that cup final was the greatest weekend I’ve ever been involved in and I’ll never forget it. But the most important thing is hearing people’s stories. People ask if I get fed up hearing about it but I love hearing everyone’s stories. I got a letter recently from a young lad and I wrote back to him and his mum said I’d made his 2018. He wrote a wee personal note to say thanks for winning the cup and I wrote back thanking him for his support, I signed it and his letter.
“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.
“I love what I do, playing football for a living, I enjoyed playing down south since leaving as a teenager for Manchester United. But the decision I made to come to Hibs when I did was the best decision of my life.”
Gray is currently in the Algarve enjoying some warm-weather training with his team-mates and the 29-year-old is confident seven days in Portugal will enable him to return to Edinburgh ready for a third successive Scottish Cup clash with arch-rivals Hearts at Tynecastle.
Limited by a niggling knee injury to just 12 appearances so far this season, Gray believes the week away will allow him to fine-tune his fitness, the winter conditions back home having hindered him in that regard.
He said: “I’m feeling good, obviously it has been a frustrating time but I am getting there now. I managed to get on the bench for the last couple of games which has been good, but I just needed a week’s training and then get myself back involved.
“I think the most important thing about coming to Portugal is you can almost guarantee the pitches are going to be playable. That was a big thing for me trying to get myself back fit. I was going out running but the pitches were frozen which made it difficult. We were training on astro so the facilities we have here will be a massive bonus for the boys who have had knocks and niggles but we can also get a good week’s training.”
Hibs boss Neil Lennon admitted he felt he had been a bit unfair on Gray in asking him to play through the pain barrier, but the right-back insisted: “I would not say it was unfair as such.
“When you get the chance to play you are desperate to play and help the boys out which is something I would always do. As the manager said, I was carrying a knock and it was maybe hindering me a little bit but I never put the team in jeopardy by playing if I was not fit or able to contribute to the team.
“I was able to do that. Me being me, I was targeting every game saying I’d be fine and push for it but sometimes you have to be more realistic.”
Rest was diagnosed as the best cure for Gray’s problem but he added: “It was such a busy schedule it was hard to try to get the rest into it. It was niggling away and it was getting worse and worse and 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. But I managed to get myself fit enough so the manager could use me for the last couple of games. But with it being such a busy schedule towards the end of December and the big games we had, it was obviously difficult having not played for six or seven weeks to throw me in for them. It would have been a big risk. I am just delighted now I have managed to get myself back involved again and in the manager’s thoughts.”
Gray’s frustration at being sidelined has been eased by watching his team-mates make such an impression in their first season of Premiership football following a three-year exile in the Championship. “It’s been fantastic, a great start to the season,” he said. “We have played some really good stuff, we have a good squad and everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“We’ve enjoyed it, having full stadiums and going away to the big teams again, just a buzz and excitement of continuing the last couple of seasons.”
Hibs, who will return from Portugal on Saturday with the squad further strengthened by the arrival on loan of goalkeeper Scott Bain and Australian striker Jamie Maclaren, went into the winter break sitting fourth in the table. But, while that may have taken some by surprise, Gray insisted no-one inside Easter Road has been.
“Definitely not,” he said. “We have said for the last couple of seasons we’ve got a good enough squad to compete at the top end of the SPFL.
“It’s alright saying that, but we always believed in ourselves we could do that. There’s only been a couple of games where we have not deserved to get anything. We’re playing well with a great squad, it’s a real positive time.”