Watching Hibs ride high at the top end of the SPL brings back many happy memories for Ulrik Laursen as he recalls his first season at Easter Road.
As a virtual unknown, the big Dane found himself thrust into the white-hot atmosphere of an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle, Alex McLeish’s new-look Hibs side given the sternest test of all on the opening day of the season.
As one of five summer arrivals – David Zitelli would later join Laursen, John O’Neil, Paul Fenwick, Gary Smith and Didier Agathe in a green-and-white shirt – Laursen and his new team-mates emerged from that ordeal with a no-scoring draw, one which was to prompt a remarkable start to the season.
Today, history appears to be repeating itself, the Easter Road outfit entering the month of November in second place, tucked in behind leaders Celtic, just as McLeish’s players did 12 years ago.
And, once again, they appear to have taken their opponents by surprise, new boss Pat Fenlon having conducted a radical overhaul of his squad similar to that engineered by McLeish in the summer of 2000 when many were wondering, as they were only a few months ago, just how Hibs might fare in the season about to begin.
While Fenlon’s players have overcome a shaky start, losing 3-0 on the opening day to Dundee United at Tannadice, there were no such problems for Laursen and his new team-mates. They lost just one of their opening 14 matches, winning all six of their home matches in that period.
Today, of course, Hibs remain unbeaten at Easter Road, a fact which underpins their unexpected good start to the latest campaign, new arrivals such as Tim Clancy, Paul Cairney, Alan Maybury, Gary Deegan, Ben Williams, Shefki Kuqi and Tom Taiwo gelling just as quickly as did McLeish’s revamped side way back then.
Laursen, now 36 and living back in his hometown of Odense where he played for his local side OB before McLeish snapped him up, believes the secret of that early season success lay in the tight bond between the players – Fenlon appearing to have installed a similar camaraderie in today’s squad. The former defender said: “I have happy memories of that team, we had great characters in the dressing- room then, especially Mixu Paatelainen. There were, of course, big names like Franck Sauzee, pictured right, and Russell Latapy but, while people always look to pick out one or two players, throughout the season our strength lay in the squad.
“Everyone wanted to work hard for each other. On and off the pitch we were a great team. We spent a lot of time together away from the game as well. Celtic were doing quite well and went on to win the treble that season, beating us in the Cup final, but early on Rangers were quite vulnerable and we beat them 1-0 at home when David Zitelli scored.
“We were disappointed if we didn’t win a game. The matches against the Old Firm took care of themselves, but the important games to win are those against the other sides if you want to be at the top end of the table.”
Now in the final year of his studies to become a physiotherapist after hanging up his boots, Laursen is well aware of the misery Hibs fans have endured over the past couple of seasons, dismissing the 5-1 Scottish Cup final hammering by arch-rivals Hearts with a masterly understatement of “that must have been a sore one.”
And, although he confesses to knowing nothing about Pat Fenlon, he’s delighted with the seemingly remarkable transformation the Irishman has brought to his former club.
Laursen, who made a £1.5 million move to Celtic in 2002, before returning to Denmark to play for OB again and then finally FC Copenhagen, said: “Hibs will always be a club I’ll be grateful to. They gave me the opportunity to play at a higher level, I had a really good experience at Easter Road, two of the best seasons of my career on and off the pitch, it was magnificent. Having been there, naturally I always want to see them do well.
“It’s a great club with great supporters and a great city to live in so it was quite a special thing for me to come back with OB in the InterToto Cup a few years ago. I actually took a cab from our team hotel, went to see my old house in Edinburgh and had a walk around the city centre by myself. It all brought back those good memories. I’ve been at my wife to come back again for a holiday, but she prefers the weather in Italy! I have to admit I only look at the newspapers now and again but it’s been obvious they’ve been struggling a bit in the past couple of seasons from the results.
“I don’t know Pat Fenlon at all but he seems to have put together a good squad going by the start they’ve had to the season. Just as in 2000, the current players seem to have just ‘clicked’ right away, but it’s not just about the boys in the team at any moment. It’s important you have a really strong dressing-room.
“That’s what we had, big, strong characters and it seems there’s a winning mentality again.”