Danny Swanson travelled to Greece ready to encounter the incendiary atmosphere he’d heard all about following Hibs’ epic tussle with AEK Athens years earlier.
But instead he endured one of the wierdest games of his career, playing in a stadium totally empty bar 500 travelling Dundee United fans. A waterlogged pitch at AEK’s Olympic Stadium saw the Europa League qualifier switched to Panionios – only for their fans to dig up the pitch in protest, leaving UEFA to mediate and decide the match should go ahead at the home of Olympiakos, AEK’s deadliest rivals.
UEFA also ruled no away fans should be allowed in, a 500-strong police cordon in place to ensure their safety.
“It was a weird set-up,” recalled the midfielder. “We were stuck in the hotel, not allowed to go out and had a police escort to the game. I’d been looking forward to the atmosphere, I’d heard all about it, but there was hardly anyone there.”
Now Swanson is looking to return to Greece and to enjoy what he missed out on when Neil Lennon’s side face Asteras Tripolis in the second qualifying round of this season’s Europa League.
Usually it would be seen as a touch premature to be discussing that tie when the second leg of the first round has still to be played but, with a commanding 6-1 lead over NSI Runavik, it would take a catastrophic collapse from Hibs if the part-timers from the Faroe Islands were to overturn that advantage tomorrow night.
Swanson, who is keen to get the nod from Lennon to start in the Toftir Stadium having sampled only half an hour of the action at Easter Road last Thursday, acknowledged there remains a job to be completed.
Swanson, who watched as Lennon’s latest signing Stevie Mallan scored twice on his competitive debut from the middle of the park, said: “I feel like I have just signed again, I still have that excitement.
“I just keep training away, the gaffer has said I have been doing well and I feel fitter than I was last year.
“I enjoyed coming on last week. We knew we had to score goals and we did. I’ve never been in this position before of being 6-1 ahead going into a second game. It’s still a big game despite having such a big cushion. We have to play as if it is 0-0. It’s also an astro pitch. We’ve watched a bit of them and, while I think it will be tougher, it’s something we should take care of.”
Swanson, however, admitted he already has half-an-eye on what’s to come, saying: “We are playing to get into the group stages. Tripolis will be tougher than this one but we know what to do and it will be good for the boys to experience it. I’ve been doing a bit of looking up on them and we’re looking forward to it.
“Beating sides like Asteras Tripolis needs to be our target. We didn’t put in all that work last season just to accept failure. I feel like we are progressing and I think everyone can see that we are improving and growing as a club.
“The aim is definitely to get to the group stage and that would be a massive achievement. You can’t just go along for the ride and I don’t think it will really feel like Europe until we get to the group stage, so that’s most definitely the aim.
“If we play to our potential, then you never know.”
Tripolis will most certainly be a huge step up in standard compared to Runavik, the Greek club having been regulars in the Europa League group stages themselves in recent years.
But, having twice witnessed narrow defeats to AEK – United lost 2-1 on aggregate – and Hibs 4-3 following an unforgettable night at Easter Road which the young Swanson watched from the terracing, the former St Johnstone and Hearts player admitted he’d love to make it third-time lucky against Greek opposition.
“The AEK Athens game will always be the European night I go back to,” he said of a game in which Hibs, 2-0 down from the first leg, fought back to level the tie with a double from Paco Luna only for the Spaniard to miss a point-blank header in the last minute which would have sent them through.
AEK scored twice in extra-time and, although David Zitelli ensured Alex McLeish’s side would win on the night, it was another case of what might have been for a Scottish side.
Swanson recalled: “I’ll always look back on that game fondly – it was a brilliant night. I remember going back to my dad’s pub afterwards and, even although we’d lost, the place was absolutely bouncing.
“It didn’t feel like a defeat and to this day, it was probably the best atmosphere I have experienced at Easter Road.
“Now that we are in Europe and looking forward to a trip to Greece, that game immediately springs to mind.
“We’ve had some great times at Easter Road since I’ve been a player here, big games in the league, but nights like that are just a little bit different and I’d love to be part of an occasion like that on the pitch rather than in the stands.”