DAVID Gray has witnessed Manchester United lift the European Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow and seen two of the finest players of the modern age, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, lock horns at the Olimpico in Rome.
He was in attendance when Ruud van Nistelrooy inspired United to FA Cup glory at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2004 and was part of the Burton Albion squad which narrowly missed out on promotion in the League Two play-off final at Wembley last season.
Despite lapping up every moment of his visits to some of the most prestigious stadia in the world, the well-travelled full-back is adamant Hampden Park will always be his field of dreams.
Gray had the “honour” of turning out at the national stadium once, starring in a Victory Shield stalemate against England as a raw 15-year-old in 2003. The young Scots, who also counted Hibernian stalwart Lewis Stevenson among their number that day, claimed a hard-fought 1-1 draw against a side which included current Arsenal and England forward Theo Walcott.
To say Gray is keen to navigate successfully tomorrow’s William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final against Berwick Rangers to secure a return to Mount Florida after 12 years would be something of an understatement.
“I was only 15 when we played against England at Hampden so it’s been a long time for me to wait to get back to there,” the 26-year-old said. “Even at the time, I never took it for granted or thought I would play there loads of times. I took it all in and really appreciated the chance to walk out at the national stadium. My biggest ambition in life has always been to play for the national team, so to get the chance to pull on the Scotland shirt and play at Hampden, even at youth level, is a dream come true at any age and a real honour.
“Coming through the Scotland set-up I played for the under-17s, 19s and 21s, but none of the games were at Hampden. I’ve been to a few games there as a supporter but to get back there as a player would be something else.”
The chance to perform on the Hampden stage would be particularly cathartic for Gray, who endured the anguish of being confined to the substitutes’ bench at Wembley as his campaign at Burton reached its crescendo. Despite playing a key role in the second half of the league campaign, he did not feature in the encounter with Fleetwood, which Albion lost 1-0.
“To think you’re actually standing on the Wembley pitch is a pretty amazing feeling,” the former Manchester United youngster said. “I was disappointed not to start. I played in both of the semi-finals, but I could sense earlier in the week that I probably wasn’t going to start.
“It was great just to be there and be part of it. The whole Wembley experience was great, going down there the day before and then getting to the ground early and soaking it all in.
“I went to two Champions League finals – in Rome and Moscow. The club provided tickets for everyone involved with the club and they were really good trips, especially the one in Russia when John Terry slipped! To see Messi and Ronaldo, two of the greatest players to kick a ball, on the same pitch is a special thing that you never forget.
“I was at a couple of FA Cup finals as well at the Millennium Stadium and, although I wasn’t named in the squad on the day, these are occasions which inspire you to make the most out of your career and try to experience games like that.”
Gray admits he has allowed himself to countenance the prospect of reaching another showpiece and enjoying more than just a watching brief this time.
Whisper it, but he even sees no reason Hibs can not break the habit of several lifetimes – 113 years to be exact – and win the competition.
“I have thought about what it would be like to get to the final with Hibs, especially as the club hasn’t won the cup for so long,” continued the club vice-captain.
“I feel fortunate to have the opportunity we have now and really excited by it. Why can’t we do it? We don’t have any pressure on us. We’re not expected to win it.
“Certainly no-one here is thinking we can’t win the Scottish Cup because Hibs ‘just don’t win the Scottish Cup’. The lads here are just seeing it as a great opportunity to get to Hampden.”
Berwick Rangers arrive at Easter Road as 17-1 underdogs to win tomorrow and Hibs head coach, Alan Stubbs, was last night keen to emphasise the diligence which has gone into ensuring his side do not succumb to an unforgivable cup exit.
“We will give Berwick the utmost respect. You only need to look at the dossier I have on my desk and the analysis we have on Berwick,” said Stubbs. “I would say we have extensive footage and reports from at least their last six matches.
“There’s no-one taking this game lightly and I’ll tell you this for a fact, I won’t allow that to happen.”
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