Darren McGregor believes Stevie Mallan can hold the key to Hibs taking another step towards their target of reaching the group stages of the Europa League when they face Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis at Easter Road tonight.
The midfielder has already claimed four goals – two in each match – as Neil Lennon’s players comfortably defeated NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the first qualifying round.
But while admitting he and his team-mates will face much tougher opposition in a side which has plenty of European experience, McGregor believes Mallan has the expertise from dead-ball situations to endanger any team.
The Hibs defender knows Mallan from his time with St Mirren and revealed the 22-year-old, who has returned north following an unhappy season in England, has caught his eye. He said: “I knew him briefly at St Mirren. Stevie’s only 22 and I’m 32 so I don’t know what age he would have been then, perhaps 15 or 16. But I followed him at St Mitten. He’s been down at Barnsley but since he’s been back up I have been very impressed with him.
“He’s one of the few people in the Premiership who you see as being very assured at set-pieces. Anything within 20 or 25 yards you expect to see him to be on target and that is a massive plus.
“He’s already shown he can be a key figure in games. He is young, hungry and has come in to make a name for himself and if we can develop that, then that would be great. He’s great at set-pieces, good at moving the ball and is energetic – everything we need.”
McGregor, who was an unused substitute in the fog-shrouded Svangaskard Stadium in Toftir as Hibs, 6-1 up against Runavik from the first leg in Edinburgh, stumbled slightly before winning the return game, admitted Asteras will present totally different proposition, even more so when Hibs travel to the searing heat of the Peloponnese in a week’s time.
But, he insisted, such vastly contrasting experiences was what football on this stage is all about. He said: “Europe is the fruits of our labour, playing 38 games and finishing fourth.
“If you’d said to me a couple of years ago that I would be in the Faroe Islands, I would have given you a strange look. It was good to go there and a good experience. It’s good to come up against players who are an unknown quantity and to test yourself.
“Everything is a learning experience regardless of the opposition. You can take pluses and negatives from everything. You can argue it wasn’t the best of opposition but we did perform well in the first leg and maybe let ourselves down a bit in the second.
“It’s building blocks, not just for me, who is tapering off, but the younger guys as well to go and get European football at such a young age.
“Ryan Porteous, at the age he is, that will stand him in good stead. It’s also got to help Oli Shaw in years to come as well. It’s also good for the fans, it creates that good mood about the stadium. It pushes us on and builds to helping make Hibs a well-known name.
“The gaffer says he’s been there and done it and it’s all about us creating that legacy for ourselves to say that we’ve progressed in European competition, and done well.”
If the part-timers of Runavik were fit, athletic and physical being halfway through their season, Asteras have yet to kick a ball in anger although they have been in action during a training camp in Poland in which they played three games, allowing Hibs, who had sent academy coach Gareth Evans on a spying mission, to build up a healthy dossier on the Greeks.
McGregor said: “We’ve watched videos on their strengths and alleged weaknesses. We are well aware of how they play and who their dangermen are and what not.
“It’s being aware of that and playing our own game. We know we have players that can hurt them and score goals. It’s about concentrating, keeping a clean sheet and getting the victory we’re after.”
McGregor is also well aware that as a “no-nonsense” centre back he may well have to adjust his own game knowing the Greek players are likely to take every chance to persuade Swedish referee Andreas Ekberg to award them a foul.
He said: “For me, I’ve seen that players do go down a bit easier than they do in the Scottish game, especially from my position and the way I play.
“The pace can sometimes change, but the quality is still there. They’re going to be a decent enough team so we just look forward to the challenge.If we can win the game and keep a clean sheet, then that will stand us in good stead for the second leg. I think it is a good draw, a team that is of similar calibre to us. It will be tough but if we progress we can put ourselves on the map.”