TAKING charge of Hibernian in the League Cup final against Celtic at Hampden back in 2021 during his first spell as caretaker manager was a tall order for David Gray and then some.
Stepping into the away dugout for the second leg of the Conference League play-off against Aston Villa at Villa Park tonight, though, was an utterly thankless task for the Leith legend.
Unai Emery, whose team were leading 5-0 from the first leg at Easter Road last week and assured of a place in the group stage, chose to rest several key players and left his captain, Scotland internationalist John McGinn, out.
However, the Premier League outfit, who had scored 12 times in their previous three outings, still had far, far too much quality for their outclassed Premiership rivals.
First half goals from Jhon Duran and Leon Bailey killed off the slim hopes the visitors had of recording a result against all the odds and salvaging some pride. Matty Cash came on in the second-half and added another.
Hibs certainly gave their followers some moments to cheer. But they were unable to avoid another heavy reverse and a thumping 8-0 aggregate defeat. Here are five talking points as they exited Europe.
This was the first European game that Aston Villa had played at Villa Park in 13 long years and their supporters marked the occasion by packing out the famous old ground in large numbers.
The former European Cup winners’ place in the group stage of the was as good as guaranteed assured after an emphatic triumph in the Scottish capital.
Still, the chance to see their side in action in a competitive fixture against a team from another country for the first time since they lost the second leg of the Europa League play-off to Rapid Vienna back in 2010 was clearly an exciting one for them.
The Hibs fans who made the journey south to Birmingham – and there were around 2,200 of them inside the ground – made their presence felt as well and helped to create quite an atmosphere.
Fireworks were set off as the teams took to the field – and Villa could make quite a bang in this competition in the coming months on the evidence of their outstanding play throughout this double header.
They may lack recent European experience as a club. But the same cannot be said of their manager Emery. He won the Europa League three times with Sevilla and then repeated the feat with Villarreal. Do not bet against him savouring Conference League glory this term.
There was no chance whatsoever of Hibs staging any kind of a comeback despite their opponents not fielding their strongest side.
But Duran made sure of the hosts’ progress early in the first-half when he got on the end of a sumptuous long ball upfield from his team mate Pau Torres, outmuscled Rocky Bushiri and flicked past David Marshall.
It was a sublime finish from the Colombian and underlined once again what a quality side the seventh-placed outfit in the English top flight are. Bailey’s strike was not bad either. He cut inside Obita and rifled underneath Marshall. Cash showed why he is one of the hottest predators in the country with his opportunist effort.
The folly of fielding such an attacking Hibs line-up against Villa in the first leg at Easter Road last week was cruelly exposed by the English side in a one-sided rout.
Gray still deployed Christian Doidge and Elie Youan up front last night - but he was far more cautious than Lee Johnson had been six days earlier and opted for a five man rearguard.
Bushiri, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson were flanked by wing backs Jordan Obita and Lewis Miller. The new formation didn’t prevent the visitors from losing once again and suffering a heavy aggregate defeat. Still, it was a far more sensible approach to take.
The is no shortage of contenders for the vacancy which has arisen in Leith. Neil Lennon, who led the capital club to fourth place in the top flight, has declared his interest in the role. He would be a popular appointment. But Gray did his cause no great harm despite the loss that his charges suffered.
Gray clearly had one eye on the Premiership match against Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Sunday when he selected his starting line-up for the rematch with Villa.
Martin Boyle, who is his top scorer in the 2023/24 campaign with four goals in eight appearances, and Dylan Vente, who has been on target twice in six outings, were both named among the replacements.
But Hibs still had their chances. Obita forced a fine save from goalkeeper Robin Olsen, Josh Campbell got into the opposition area and got a shot away and Doidge nodded wide in the opening 45 minutes.
Boyle came on for Youan in the second-half and worked hard to create an opening in the final third. But he will be fresh for what is an important game this weekend.
Shipping eight goals in two games to a ream with Aston Villa’s resources is no disgrace. Marshall actually kept the scoreline semi-respectable with excellent saves from Ollie Watkins in the second half and Cash in injury time. But the Scotland goalkeeper could have done far better at the first and third goals.
He raced off his line and allowed Duran to slot past him and then spilled a Bailey free kick straight to the feet of Cash. He will have to do better going forward if Hibs are to stop conceding so many goals, improve their domestic form and haul themselves up the Premiership table.