Liam Fontaine today predicted a “special night” at Easter Road when Hibs kick off life under new boss Neil Lennon with what will be a first taste of European football for the majority of the Easter Road squad.
The first leg of the second qualifying round tie of the Europa League against either Valur Reykjavik of Iceland or Denmark’s Brondby on Thursday, July 14 will also be the first time Fontaine and his team-mates will line up together at home since their historic Scottish Cup triumph over Rangers.
And, insisted the big defender, throwing all those factors together will ensure the Capital ground will be buzzing, a night he told the Evening News he’s already anticipating greatly.
He said: “The fans are still one a high, it will be the new gaffer’s first game, the players who won the cup back together again, European football – it’s a game everyone will relish. It promises to be a special night for us all.”
Although now 30, this will be the former Bristol City skipper’s first taste of Europe as it will be for many of his team-mates. Disclosing he’d watched in great anticipation as the draw was made at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Fontaine said: “This is a real bonus after winning the cup, the rewards for the hard work we put in last season.
“It’s great for the fans, the players and the club. For me personally, it’s my first taste of European football and it will be the same for the majority of the boys as we have such a young squad, so we’ll be going into it with a lot of excitement and looking to see how far we can go.”
Fonatine, naturally, is well aware of Hibs’ standing in Europe, the first British club to take part in such competition, and he’s delighted that the club will be back on that stage again. He said: “It’s something to look forward to but you can also look back on your career and say ‘I did this or that’.”
Lennon, of course, is no stranger to European football having enjoyed many such nights both as a player and manager with Celtic and Fontaine fully expects the former Northern Ireland midfielder to bring his winning mentality to Easter Road.
He said: “The gaffer’s a winner. He was as a player and as manager at Celtic, taking them to the last 16 of the Champions League.
“We’re going into this to try to progress to the next round. Brondby are obviously a well-known side in Europe although they still have to play Valur, but we’ll be looking forward to trying to win whoever we end up playing.”
Fontaine admitted that, like everyone else, he was taken aback when head coach Alan Stubbs quit Hibs for English Championship side Rotherham within days of that memorable cup win at Hampden but he also revealed he was just as surprised to discover who his successor would be.
He said: “Every person can have their own goals in their career and Alan will have done what he thinks is right for him and we wish him well after what he has achieved here over the last couple of years.
“Neil Lennon has a high profile not only here in Scottish football but as a player in England and for Hibs to bring him here shows the ambition within the club. He’ll have seen the thousands and thousands of fans on the streets of Edinburgh the day after the cup final and I am sure the ambition and passion he has for football will resonate with the players.
“We start back training again on Thursday. We’ll all be back together again for the first time since the cup final. We’re all looking forward to that, to meeting the new manager and beginning to work with him. It’s a great opportunity for us to work with someone of his calibre, someone who has done all he has in the game.
“I’m certain he’ll be instilling in us right away his passion, his will to win and what he wants to achieve.”
And Fontaine believes Hibs’ two Europa League games will help the Edinburgh side’s bid to win promotion at the third time of asking, their Championship season kicking off away to Falkirk, the club who pipped them to second place last term.
He said: “Sometimes pre-season can be long and drawn out, a matter of just getting minutes under your belt. But we’ll be getting up to speed pretty quickly and the fact we’ll be getting competitive football right away will bode well.”