Hibs will find themselves unseeded when the draw for the second qualifying round of the Europa League is made in less than a month’s time, making it a tall order for the Easter Road outfit to progress in the competition.
The Scottish Cup runners-up will begin their campaign on July 18, but will have to negotiate three rounds – the second and third qualifying round, as well as the play-off round – if they are to make it into the group stage of the competition.
However, it is a challenge boss Pat Fenlon is sure to relish, having enjoyed battling against the odds on the European stage both as a player and manager in Ireland. Hibs have found the European stage somewhat elusive in the modern era, with only trips to Athens (2001), Dnipropetrovsk (2005) and Maribor (2010), as well as a couple of InterToto Cup excursions, to recall in the past 20 years.
Fenlon, however, has found jaunts around the continent more commonplace. The Hibs manager was credited with delivering the greatest result in Shelbourne’s history, in charge of the Irish side as they grabbed a famous draw with Spanish giants Deportivo la Coruna, who had been Champions League semi-finalists the previous season, in front of 24,000 people at Lansdowne Road in 2004.
Shelbourne may have lost the second leg 3-0, but the display in Dublin against a side containing the likes of Juan Carlos Valeron, Albert Luque and Diego Tristan goes down as the most memorable moment for Fenlon in almost ten years of European action as a manager with Shels, Derry City and Bohemians.
Recalling that Champions League adventure, Fenlon said: “We’d knocked out KR Reykjavik in the first round and then won against Hadjuk Split, which nobody expected. We ended up playing against Deportivo and that was, as a manager, the best experience I’ve had because you’re going up against some of the best players and coaches in the world. The first leg at home was a fantastic experience and something any player should aspire to experience. I’ve been in Europe a lot as a manager, in about ten years I think we qualified pretty much every season. We had some cracking trips around Europe and we can look forward to that next season.”
Fenlon can also fall back on his European experiences as a player as he leads Hibs back into action the former midfielder having faced Hearts in the UEFA Cup with St Patrick’s Athletic in 1988, while also featuring for Shelbourne as they led Rangers 3-0 at Tranmere’s Prenton Park in the same competition in 1988 before eventually losing 7-3 on aggregate.
The Irishman will find out the opponents for his first European match as Hibs manager when the draw for the first and second rounds of the competition are made at UEFA’s Swiss headquarters in Nyon on June 24. Going by the teams Hibs might meet, Fenlon will need to draw on all his knowledge if he is to prolong any kind of European run.
Thus far, the manager has been able to dodge trips to the likes of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but Hibs could find themselves confronted with a gruelling 3200-mile round trip to face Russia’s Rubin Kazan, with last season’s Europa League quarter-finalists the top seeds in the second-round draw.
Lined up immediately behind Rubin are Standard Liege of Belgium, Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, and Turkish side Trabzonspor, the current club of former Hibs defender Sol Bamba.
Further down that list are Hajduk Split – who Hibs lost 5-4 on aggregate to in the Cup Winners’ Cup in season 1972-73 – Red Star Belgrade and IFK Gothenburg, while Fenlon will no doubt wish to avoid, potentially-exhausting journeys to the likes of Shakhtyor Salihorsk and Minsk in Belarus and Cheronomorets Odessa of Ukraine.
The full list of seeded teams has yet to be completed but will also include the fourth-placed team in the Greek Superleague play-offs, the fifth-placed team in Switzerland’s Super League and the runners-up in the Czech First League.
Depending on the luck of the draw, Hibs might have to wait to discover who their opponents will be, with 76 teams competing in the first qualifying round. Notable names such as Rosenborg, Levski Sofia, CSKA Sofia and Videoton head the seeded clubs at that stage.
The 38 winners from those ties, which will be played on July 4 and 11, will then join the 42 entering at the second stage, including Hibs and St Johnstone. As such, Hibs could find themselves in an “either or” situation, having to wait until a first-round tie is resolved, which would give Fenlon the opportunity to mount a spy mission or two, although such a scenario would allow Hibs just a week to make final preparations either to host the second round first-leg match at Easter Road or for what could be a journey to a far-flung country.