Exclusive - Hibs boss on Euro envy and UEFA ambitions
Hibs boss Nick Montgomery admits to suffering from Euro envy as he watches Sunday’s opponents Aberdeen flying the Saltire in the group stages of UEFA competition. And he’s challenged his players to earn themselves another crack at continental football – by continuing their ascent up the Scottish Premiership table.
Monty narrowly missed out on two opportunities to coach in major international competitions this season. Having won the A-League with Central Coast, he left the Mariners before they could kick off their AFC Cup campaign – and arrived at Hibs after they’d been knocked out of the Europa Conference League.
The Yorkshireman still has fond memories of reaching the last 16 of the Asian Champions League as a player. And, although the Dons are already out of the Conference League and playing for nothing but pride in this evening’s Group G clash against HJK in Helsinki, Montgomery will still be watching with interest.
He admitted: “I look at the teams playing in Europe now – and I wish that was us. But it’s not. One hundred per cent, I really want the club to be challenging in European competitions – but you have to earn the right to do that.
“Fair play to Aberdeen for competing. I would definitely love to be where they are. But we can only control what we can control. And that’s every game as it comes now, hoping that come the end of the season, we deserve to be in one of those spots.
“I didn’t get the chance to take Central Coast into the Asian Cup this season - but they’re top of their group, which is obviously good. We took the club there for the first time in its history.
“You always want to finish as high as you can and, if that means qualifying for Asian or European competition, depending on where you are in the world, that’s the icing on the cake. That’s where everyone wants to be competing.”
Recalling his own experience of stepping into the big time as an A-League stalwart, Montgomery said: “I played in the Asian Champions League with Central Coast, which was obviously the highest level of competition we could reach. We reached the last 16 but lost to the Chinese team (and eventual tournament winners) Guangzhou Evergrande.
“They had Marcello Lippi as manager, they had an Argentinian player called Dario Concu who was the fourth highest paid player in the world, because they had a ridiculous budget. They were throwing stupid money at it in Chinese football at the time.
“I really enjoyed the experience of going to different countries and playing against the best teams from all over Asia. It was definitely exciting for fans and players. As a player, whether it’s in Asia or Europe, it really does put you in the shop window for many, many different leagues.”
Hibs face the Dons for the first time since their contentious Viaplay Cup semi-final loss to Barry Robson’s men at Hampden at the start of the month. Montgomery, who was left infuriated by the shortcomings of VAR in that 1-0 defeat, believes his players have improved in the interim.
“Obviously it hurt for a couple of days,” he said of the semi. “When you play well and feel like you deserve to win the game, it hurts when you lose, especially as two big decisions went against us. It’s hard not to feel aggrieved when there’s a final at stake.
“I’m an honest manager, and I would be the first to say if we hadn’t played well and didn’t deserve to win that game. But, on the day, we were the better team.
“We just needed to do better at putting the ball in the net, obviously, given the chances we had. And we got caught by one counterattack, one moment. So it hurt, for sure, but now it’s in the past.
“I think we can still improve. We know we’ve got a lot to work on. But I think we’re improving individually, all the time. There are plenty of examples of guys improving every week.
“As a team, we’re growing at a steady rate. But there are ups and downs. Part of the process is making mistakes and continuing to go again.
“That’s what I love about the group. Every time we’ve had a set-back, whether that be losing the semi-final or conceding a late equaliser when we’ve been winning a game, we always get back on the training ground and work hard to keep improving.”