Hibs can knock Molde out of their stride by making an aggressive, high-intensity start at Easter Road tomorrow night, according to a manager who masterminded a Europa League victory over the Norwegians just four weeks ago.
Northern Irish side Glenavon pulled off one of the best results in their history when they beat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team 2-1 at Mourneview Park in the first leg of their first qualifying round tie last month. Molde’s superior quality ultimately shone through when they won 5-1 in the second leg to qualify with a 7-2 aggregate victory, but Gary Hamilton, the Glenavon manager, explained how his players unsettled their more illustrious opponents with a typically British high-tempo approach in Lurgan.
“I think we maybe took them by surprise because we came out the traps early, pressed them high up the pitch and did really well,” Hamilton told the Evening News. “That gave us confidence. Molde scored against the run of play but we equalised straight away and in the second half we were excellent. It was one of those nights where everything clicked for us – my players probably won’t have another night like it. We beat them 2-1 but even then, you could see the quality Molde had. When we went over there, we were in the tie right until the end. We were 3-1 down for most of the second half and at that point an away goal would have taken us through. We had a blatant penalty turned down that would have changed things and then when we were chasing they got two goals right at the end.”
Although his own team ran them close, Hamilton was hugely impressed with Molde and the Glenavon manager wasn’t surprised to see them ease past Albanian side Lac in the second qualifying round to set up a showdown with Hibs. “You could see they were a quality side,” said Hamilton. “They had some real quality players who I feel could play at a far higher level than the Norwegian league. They’re a big strong physical team but they try to play football the right way. We’ve played four or five times in Europe and I played about ten or 11 seasons in Europe as a player, and Molde are probably the best team I’ve come across.”
Although 18-year-old striker Erling Haaland has been touted for a big move away from Molde, with Manchester United among the big European clubs with which he has been linked, Hamilton pinpointed playmaker Eirik Hestad, who scored four against Glenavon over the two legs, as the Norwegian club’s main threat. “Hestad, for me, was the player that stuck out,” he said. “He was top quality. There were about 19 clubs watching our game against them, and I’m pretty sure he would have been one of the players being watched, alongside Haaland. Hestad is the one that makes them tick – everything goes through him. He played wide and behind the attackers against us – he floated about, never really settling in one area. He’s got a lot of quality and could definitely play higher than the Norwegian league.”
Hamilton acknowledged the undoubted quality of 6ft 3ins Haaland but explained how his team snuffed out the son of former Manchester City and Leeds United player Alfie Inge Haaland in the first leg. The much-hyped teenager didn’t feature in the second leg due to his involvement with Norway Under-19s. “Haaland was quiet against us in the first leg,” said the Glenavon manager. “I don’t think he was ready for the rough and tumble of playing against Irish League defenders. Our league is physical and he probably didn’t get the time on the ball that he gets in his own league. He started through the middle but he got moved out wide towards the end because he wasn’t getting much joy. He’s a young kid and it would have been something different for him coming up against our defenders because we have a different way of playing. I think it took him a while to get accustomed to the physical side of it. Getting tight and physical to him worked for us but he’s a strong boy himself so there’s no guarantees that will always work. We had watched footage of his previous games and he stood out in those. He’s quick, strong and predominantly left-footed, and he’s clearly got a lot of talent.”
Although unstinting in his admiration for Molde, Hamilton believes Hibs have a decent chance of knocking them out and setting up a potential play-off round tie against Zenit St Petersburg. “Scottish football is a lot stronger than our league but we managed to put up a fight and give them a game, so it’s certainly a winnable tie for a team of Hibs’ quality,” he said. “They’ll need to be at their best though because Molde are a quality side with a top manager.”
Solskjaer, who famously scored Manchester United’s winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Cup final, certainly made a positive impression on Hamilton. “I’ve met a lot of coaches and managers in my times, but Ole was one of the nicest I’ve ever come across in terms of giving you the time of day and sitting down and having a chat,” he said. “Considering everything he achieved in the game, he could easily have dismissed us as a part-time team in a part-time league but he gave us all the time of day and spent time talking to us about our players and giving us ideas about things. He was one of the most genuine and humble people I’ve met in football. There was no airs and graces about him, which really impressed me because sometimes people who have achieved what he has can have a high opinion of themselves and don’t give others the time of day. Ole was a gentleman from start to finish. Even after losing the first leg, he took it gracefully and praised our lads. He stayed at our ground for a long time afterwards, signing autographs and things with our players and supporters. To do that after losing to a part-time team, speaks volumes about the kind of person he is.”
Although Glenavon were heavily beaten in the return leg, Hamilton explained that, aside from the dreaded plastic pitch, Hibs will find the 11,800-capacity Aker Stadium a pleasant place to visit next week. “Molde seem to be a family club and it’s a friendly atmosphere out there,” said Hamilton. “The stadium’s in a lovely setting on the water. The only issue I had with it is that it’s a 4G surface, which makes it difficult when you’re not used to playing on it. Obviously they train and play on it all the time so it gives them a slight advantage. They get crowds of about 5-6,000 and have a state-of-the-art stadium. Even though it’s about 20 years old, it’s been so well taken care of that you’d think it only went up in the last few years. I’m sure Hibs will enjoy playing there.”