Hibs in Andorra: Boyle reprises Australia role, transfer business, captaincy decision

Hibs fans attempting to sort out planes, trains, and automobiles – or possibly autobús, for those going via Spain – to get to Andorra for Thursday night’s Europa Conference League clash with Inter Club d’Escaldes may well have been sympathetic to the somewhat arduous journey undertaken by the Easter Road players and staff on Wednesday.
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With pre-match press conference duties delayed slightly, Lee Johnson was apologetic but explained that the flight to Girona followed by coach to the tiny Pyrenean microstate – navigating dizzyingly high and narrow mountain roads en route – had taken time.

“We literally got here about 15 minutes ago so it was a hungry set of players there, so they have dived in for dinner and we’ll probably tone it down this evening due to the extensive journey we have had. So it’s a fine balance between keeping them fresh and keeping them sharp as well,” he said ahead of the evening training session.

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“It’s not an easy game, it’s a tough game. The boys are going to have to play with real intensity,” he added. “The boys have had a good pre-season, this is our first competitive game, it’s an important one, and it’s a new adventure. It’s one I am certainly looking forward to and I think the lads are, too."

Lee Johnson has sought advice from the Hibs players with prior experience of European competition. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS GroupLee Johnson has sought advice from the Hibs players with prior experience of European competition. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS Group
Lee Johnson has sought advice from the Hibs players with prior experience of European competition. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS Group

It’s new ground for Johnson, who didn’t experience continental competition as a player nor has he tasted European action as a manager. A lot of his players are new to it too, although there are a few remaining squad members who were around for the 5-1 aggregate victory over Santa Coloma in the 2021/22 edition of the Conference League, including newly re-appointed captain Paul Hanlon.

"I'll have to lean on the experience of the boys in games like this. I've had a lot of conversations with the lads who have played in these European games,” he explained. “It's new to me because as a player I didn't play in Europe, nor have I managed in it so you can do all the work in the world in terms of studying the opposition but experience is always welcome. I don't feel like we're short of it and certainly through speaking to the lads they are quite well versed in European competition. But I’m really looking forward to it; obviously I made the trip to the Faroes which was really worthwhile. As much as it was it was a troublesome journey and I missed a couple of days of training, it was a really important factor for myself to feel comfortable and totally assured with what we’re going into, and then articulating that to the players."

So troublesome trips to the North Atlantic and to the Pyrénées inside a week for Johnson, who will hope his players find it easier to navigate to victory at the Estadi Comunal come 4pm on Thursday.

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“Pre-season is great but there’s nothing like competitive games,” he said. “It’s nice to have one or two where it’s pretty relaxed but inevitably we’re all competitive beasts in competitive football and we want that thrill and that buzz and that excitement of competing for either three points or in this case, to get to the next round.”

Hibs still aren’t done in transfer market although Johnson believes, having seen his side in action against a variety of opposition in friendly games that the squad is strong enough at the moment to successfully advance to the third qualifying round.

“I’m really happy with what we’ve done so far. Early business is key because the boys get to bed in, you understand where they are in terms of fitness, you get to know their personalities, they get to bond and we’ve had that bonding time as well with the squad. We’re still in the market with hopefully another couple of players still to come in. I feel like the young players are pushing really hard as well, and if anybody slips up in attitude or performance then the next man can step in.”

Johnson will also have Martin Boyle on the bench, but admitted the effervescent forward is there to reprise his role as ‘vibes manager’ more than anything.

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“He’s a bit of a cheerleader for this game. We wanted to bring him along because he’s not too far away from getting minutes, but he has a couple of strength sessions to do before we unleash him in the first team.”

Paul Hanlon, who was confirmed as the team captain for the 2023/24 campaign, explained what the team needs to do to avoid an upset in Andorra.

“I’ve had a fair few tastes of [European football] before so I’m ready to go for another campaign and to see how far we can go in this one. We have to try and implement our game plan as much as possible. You can analyse videos but we need to turn up and do our bit on the pitch,” he stressed.

"We play in a real intense, physical, passionate league so I think we need to implement that whoever we’re facing. It’s quite unique in Scotland, the way we play at times, so I think if we can put that onto teams in this campaign they’ll find it difficult. There’s no doubt it’s different to the week-to-week but from a lot of the analysis and what the gaffer’s told us from watching them, there are similarities. They do play direct, more into strikers, and they’re not scared to rough it up a bit. We’ll be ready for it, no matter what they throw at us.

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"I was surprised; you expect a more possession-based style, maybe a slower tempo. They seem to have a slightly different style. We’ll be ready for it. I think the way we play at times – that front-foot, intense manner – it can be difficult for anyone to play against, so we need to implement it. As I said, it’s about us performing.”

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