It was no secret Heckingbottom had been in talks with the club so he had ample time to learn everything about the squad. But not everyone would have done so to the extent Heckingbottom did.
His attention to detail has helped inspire players to put together a nine-game unbeaten run in the league. Gray, whose Hibs career appeared in some doubt earlier this season, has enjoyed a new lease of life under Heckingbottom to the extent he recently signed, along with fellow defender Darren McGregor, a new four-year deal. Woe betide anyone who suggests this was an offer extended out of gratitude for what he’s already done.
Gray, who few should need reminding scored the match winner when Hibs lifted the Scottish Cup three years ago, is determined to add new memories to those from Hampden Park. Crucially, the captain is confident this can happen under Heckingbottom, who left an immediate positive impression on the squad after his arrival in February.
“He’s admitted himself that he had a couple of weeks before he got the job when he was doing his homework and studying,” said Gray. “I think that was the most impressive thing from the first day he came in on the training ground, he knew everything about every single player, right down to nicknames – everything.
“It was not as if he was coming in and getting used to the players,” he added. “He had a really good understanding of what he was walking into and what he could change. I think that’s shown with the results and performances we’ve had. He’s got us all on the same page.”
There’s a sense Gray is already fulfilling an ambassadorial role at Hibs in terms of his legendary status but that’s not how he views it. He turns 31 next month and not only is he determined to keep on playing for as long as possible, he’s confident he can secure another winner’s medal.
Heckingbottom, pictured, a former full-back, has already advised Gray to put off thoughts of winding down. The 41-year-old manager quit playing while at Gateshead eight years ago before beginning his coaching journey at Leeds Beckett University.
“He has told me he wishes he had the opportunity to do what I have towards the end of his career, and I am grateful for the opportunity,” said Gray.
“But it’s not as if I am just going to take my foot off the gas and think I’m alright now for the next four years. I want to be playing week in, week out because I know it’s a very short career. I want to achieve as much as I possibly can here. I want to win something else.
“It was a great feeling in 2016 winning something and I want to go on and do that again,” he added.
“I think we have shown in one-off games that we’re capable of beating anyone. The league is going to be very difficult, Celtic have obviously been far superior for many years now. But, at the start of every season, there are two cup competitions and there’s no reason why we can’t win one. We showed in 2016 we can, and that has to be the objective every season.”
The thought of Hibs without Gray is hard to process. His performance against Hearts summed up his worth when he risked further damage to his health by returning after being wiped out by one of his own players in the recent 2-1 win at Tynecastle. The teams meet again on Sunday at Easter Road with Gray happy to take the same pounding if it means another three points against their rivals.
When he was eventually – and groggily – helped from the field earlier this month, he sat for the rest of the game on the bench with his head between his legs. It was later reported he had been sick. Gray does not go as far as to reveal this but he was clearly suffering – in more ways than one.
“That was because we were winning and holding on towards the end of the game!” he said. “There was a bit of everything going on in my head. But I’ve had plenty of time to recover.
“It was Ofir [Marciano] – my own goalie!” he added. “I don’t mind that, to be honest with you. It was a corner just before half-time. I say to him all the time that, if he needs to come for a cross, he’s just to clean me out – that’s fine as long as he gets the ball. I want him to come and clean me out every week, as long as he keeps getting the ball. I’ve no problem with that.”