Amid the euphoria which engulfed Hibs as they finally ended that 114 year wait to lift the Scottish Cup it was, perhaps, understandable that the fact they’d also qualified for the Europa League was largely overlooked.
But now all focus is on Thursday night and the first leg of the second qualifying round against Brondby, the Danish outfit firm favourites to progress at the Easter Road club’s expense but, insisted Martin Boyle, he and his team-mates spent much of last season defying the odds as a string of Premiership clubs found to their cost.
Aberdeen, then flying high in the top flight, Dundee United and St Johnstone all fell as the Capital club negotiated their way to the League Cup final and then, leading up to that epic day at Hampden on May 21, city rivals Hearts, holders Inverness Caley and United, again, were all toppled before Championship winners Rangers fell to that stunning late winner from the head of David Gray.
A comprehensive 4-1 victory over Motherwell, who finished in the Premiership’s top six last season, was a timely reminder of just what Hibs are capable of as Neil Lennon’s side completed their preparations for the visit of Brondby in some style.
The caveat to Sunday’s performance was, of course, that the game was no more than a pre-season friendly, but it was a reasonable indicator of where things stand with it also being Motherwell’s final game before they face Rangers at Fir Park on Saturday as the new-look League Cup gets under way
“It doesn’t really bother us who we are playing,” insisted Boyle, “We pulled off a few ‘giantikilling acts’ last season and hopefully we can do it again with Brondby.
“Obviously they’ll be tough opponents, they play in Europe year after year whereas this will be a new experience for many of us, although it is one we are looking forward to enjoying. We’ll be out to give it our best shot. We can only be confident in ourselves. We’re looking good, fresh, and hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves.
“Garry Parker [Lennon’s assistant] was across for their first leg against Valur in Iceland and the club had someone at the return game, so we’ll study them this week, formations and stuff like that and I’m sure we’ll be ready.
“The Europa League is a massive tournament. As a player you want to be enjoying these competitions. It’s a big moment for us, but we’d love to look forward to another round in it.
“We’ve worked hard to earn this spot by winning the Scottish Cup. Lifting the Cup would probably have been enough but this is an extra bonus which we are aiming to enjoy. I don’t think we immediately realised we’d also picked up a place in Europe when we won the cup – our minds were obviously somewhere else at that time – but now we’ve been back in training for a couple of weeks it’s been talked about.”
Hibs’ last excursion in the competition ended in ignominy, Pat Fenlon’s side battered 7-0 at home by Malmo, the 9-0 aggregate defeat a record for a Scottish club in Europe.
Unsurprisingly, Boyle revealed that’s not been mentioned within the dressingroom with few survivors from three years ago, while Lennon and Parker have been instilling a different system of play to that favoured by Alan Stubbs, the new head coach adamant he wants the ball in the box more quickly and more often.
It’s an approach that appears to be working, the four scored at the weekend preceded by six against Edinburgh City with Jason Cummings, Hibs’ top scorer in the last two seasons, netting in all three matches to date.
Boyle said: “The gaffer wants us to be more attacking, everyone getting into the box as you saw with John McGinn’s salmon leap of a header to score our third against Motherwell. I’m sure we can get more goals than we did last season. That’s the way the gaffer likes to play and with the two we have upfront, Jason and Grant Holt, I’m sure they’ll be there to put them in the net.
“The two of them are already forming a promising partnership, although it is still early days.”
While Hibs have built up a thorough dossier on Brondby, the Danes won’t have the benefit of seeing Lennon’s players in competitive action although, of course, those two games against Valur will have given a side which doesn’t kick off its own domestic programme until Sunday vital match fitness.
But while the immediate aim on Thursday and again seven days later in Copenhagen will be to get into the next round, Boyle was adamant that whatever happens it will give him and his team-mates an edge ahead of their first Championship match – away to Falkirk.
He said: “We aren’t bothered about being at home first. It’s over two legs and as long as we play as we can, we believe we’ll give a good account of ourselves.
“It’s an early start for us and I know people say it can catch up with you at the end of the season, but I don’t think there’s any worries on our part. Look at last season, we played 54 games from July to May and were still going strong in added-on time at the end of the last match.”