ALMOST eight years ago, Alex Harris could only sit and dream as he watched Tony Mowbray’s Hibs take on Ukrainian side Dnipro.
As one of the ball boys dotted around Easter Road, the youngster had one of the best seats in the house for the UEFA Cup tie.
Fast forward to tonight and the 18-year-old will be in the thick of the action as the Capital club seek to overcome a two-goal deficit from the first leg of the Europa League second qualifying round tie against Swedish outfit Malmo, while, no doubt, the kids tasked with retrieving the ball enjoy the exact same dream he had back in September 2005.
Harris’s grasp of the detail of that particular game is hazy given he was only 11 at the time, but he does remember vividly the excitement a night of European football can bring to Easter Road.
He said: “I hadn’t long joined the club but we did act as ball boys when we could. I remember the buzz when we were asked to be ball boys that night although it all seemed a bit surreal. It was my first experience of a midweek game, of Europe and, if I remember correctly, the first time we’d each been handed a ball because the multi-ball system was to be used.
“It was quite a cold, rainy night and I was sat just to the left of the away dug-out, so it wasn’t a bad place to be seated, really close to the action. I’d imagine I’d have school the next morning so my dad collected me after the game to take me home.”
Dnipro’s visit ended in a goalless draw, the Ukrainians easing to a 5-1 win in their own Meteor Stadium two weeks later, where two of their goals came in the final three minutes as Hibs were forced to chase the game. Then, as now, it was a case of what might have been. Ivan Sproule and Scott Brown hit the post either side of half-time, while today Pat Fenlon’s players can reflect and wonder what might have been had Owain Tudur Jones not headed over the bar and new striker Rowan Vine not seen an effort clip the woodwork as Hibs chased a vital away goal in the Swedbank Stadion last week.
Harris said: “It really is a case of who knows. If either Ivan or Scott’s shot – or even both of them – had gone in, how would the second leg in Dnipro have worked out. This time round it would have been good to get an away goal in Sweden. Owain was a bit unlucky, as was Rowan, because it was a great shot which looked as if it was going in all the way.”
While the odds on Malmo, already favourites to progress to a clash with English League Cup winners Swansea City in the next round, have tightened considerably following last Thursday’s first leg, Harris insisted no-one inside the home dressing-room tonight will be throwing in the towel.
The youngster is adamant that he and his teammates saw enough to indicate that, while it will be a tough ask, the tie is far from over.
Harris, who watched the first 77 minutes of action in Sweden from the bench having suffered a thigh problem in Hibs’ final warm-up match against Raith Rovers six days earlier, said: “I think we all feared the worst when they scored those two early goals but we are a spirited bunch, we calmed ourselves down and, importantly, didn’t lose any more goals.
“In the last 20 minutes or so, we managed to push on and had a few shots. Ross Caldwell, Tom Taiwo and Liam Craig had decent efforts, we forced a few corners and their goalkeeper was even booked for wasting time.”
Harris acknowledged, though, that goalkeeper Ben Williams had put in a heroic shift, pulling off remarkable saves from Magnus Eriksson – who had scored the second goal – South African internationalist Tokelo Rantie and the Swedes’ skipper Jiloan Hamad, scorer of the opening goal, while Simon Thern, son of former Rangers star Jonas, hit the bar.
Manager Pat Fenlon, however, believes he saw enough in Harris’s cameo appearance to suggest the former Edinburgh Academy pupil can cause Rikard Norling’s side more than a few problems while Northern Ireland defender Ryan McGivern is set to return having sat out the first leg with a knee injury sustained at Stark’s Park.
For his part, Harris, who this time last year was playing for Hibs’ Under-20 side as they lifted the Foyle Cup in Northern Ireland, is just hoping he gets the nod from his boss to start the match. He said: “I thought I was going to miss the match in Malmo entirely. I’d felt my thigh a bit in the warm-up in Kirkcaldy but thought I was going to run it off. But I felt it again at half-time. It was a bit worrying but the physios looked after me.
“I didn’t start the game over there but I’m raring to go and really excited about fulfilling that dream I had during that Dnipro game of playing for Hibs in Europe. I just have to keep my fingers crossed that the gaffer picks me.
“Okay, we didn’t get the result we wanted in Sweden, but there’s been a real buzz about the place this week. Training has been good, everyone obviously wants to play in a game like this. We have a good team but we know we face a fine balancing act tonight. We can’t just go gung-ho, we have to avoid losing a goal at all costs but at the same time we’d like to get one of our own as early as possible to really give the crowd something to shout about.
“The Hibs fans who went to Sweden [532 was the official figure] were fantastic. They went a little quiet when we lost those goals but after that they were terrific and were still there long after the final whistle as we warmed down. I’ve only heard of the atmosphere at the AEK Athens match – I’m far too young to have been at that one – but I can remember what this place was like for the likes of that crunch game against Dunfermline and last season’s Scottish Cup win against Hearts.
“The atmosphere was simply electric and it would be great if we can get the same going again.”
Harris, of course, sparked that remarkable comeback in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk, Hibs winning 4-3 in extra time after being three goals down at the interval and, he admitted, that while Malmo may be somewhat more formidable opponents he’d love to do the same again.
He said: “I have to be selected first, but that goal at Hampden was my first for the club and I would be delighted if I could get my first in Europe tonight, provided, of course, that we win.”