David Gray insists the bittersweet feeling of watching his Hibernian team-mates secure a European berth in swashbuckling style fuelled his rehabilitation during six agonising months on the sidelines.
Prior to Saturday’s understated friendly victory against Linlithgow Rose, Gray’s last outing for Hibs came under an Iberian sun as he lined up against Dutch side Willem II in January as part of their winter training camp.
What should have been a fitness-building kickabout in the picturesque Portuguese village of Vila Real de Santo António swiftly turned into a nightmare for the 30-year-old. He lasted eight minutes before rupturing his achilles, an injury that would ultimately end his campaign.
“I was asking ‘what happened?’ It felt like somebody kicked me,” recalled Gray, of that miserable afternoon in the Algarve. “Then I realised there was nobody near me.”
Allied with the persistent knee complaint that hampered his progress during the first half of last season, it meant Gray made just seven league appearances on Hibs’ return to the Premiership. Hardly a fitting return for a man who has played such a defining role in the club rediscovering their pride following relegation in 2014.
Instead, he was forced to play his part behind the scenes, while acting as cheerleader on match-days. He was as dazzled as anyone else by the fare served up by the likes of Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn and Scott Allan, but would have given anything to have the ball at his feet.
That became a reality in Linlithgow, as he entered the fray at half-time and showed no ill-effects from his lengthy lay-off.
“It was a really difficult time being out,” said Gray. “It’s not easy sitting watching the lads doing so well. You are desperate to be part of it. From Christmas onwards it was fantastic and, as much as I was loving the performances the boys were putting in, I wanted to be on the pitch.
“Credit to the lads, they always said they would do well in the Premiership. I was still part of it every single day in the training ground, still enjoying being part of things and their success just gave me the motivation to get back. I used it to my advantage.
“I’ve had a few long-term injuries in my career so I knew how to deal with it. I’ve got great facilities at Hibs and great staff around me who give you the best possible chance of making a full recovery.
“I just worked as hard as I could and thankfully I got through it.”
Indeed, Gray had the appearance of a man keen to make up for lost time.
Until his introduction Hibs had, perhaps understandably in 23 degree heat, been rather sleepy against their East of Scotland League opponents, bar a couple of moments of John McGinn magic and Efe Ambrose being in entertainingly unshackled mood.
However, Gray teed up the opener within seven minutes of his introduction, slipping a neat pass to fellow substitute Danny Swanson, whose unerring finish into the top-corner was clinical.
Gray was again involved as the game was put to bed in the closing stages, sending Oli Shaw scampering down the right flank with a lofted pass. The young striker’s cut-back was perfect for Swanson, who doubled the score from the edge of the box. Hibs will now turn their attention to Berwick Rangers on Wednesday before Paul Hanlon’s testimonial match sees them cross swords with Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, as they build towards their Europa League bow against NSI Runavik on 12 July.
Should they progress, a testing but not insurmountable tie against Asteras Tripolis of Greece awaits them in the next stage of qualifying.