He’s played in front of 75,000 fans in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and 50,000 at Hampden, but even 12 years on there’s only one match which still makes the hairs on the back of former Hibs ace Mathias Jack’s neck stand on end – the Easter Road club’s epic UEFA Cup battle with AEK Athens.
It appeared quite appropriate that Dougray Scott, star of the Hollywood blockbuster Mission Impossible II, had been aboard the Edinburgh side’s plane as it returned from the Greek capital a week earlier, Alex McLeish’s team having lost 2-0 and, seemingly, out of the competition.
On a memorable night Jack and his team-mates came within a hair’s breadth of pulling off their own mission impossible, Spanish striker Paco Luna scoring twice, only to miss a last-gasp chance which would have put Hibs into the next round, before the Greeks stunned their hosts with a brace from Vassilis Tsartas in extra time.
French forward David Zitelli claimed a winner for the Capital outfit, but, alas, it wasn’t enough, the Greeks breathing a huge sigh of relief as they squeezed through 4-3 on aggregate.
While it may all have ended in tears, Jack still vividly remembers the Greeks almost wilting in the white-hot cauldron that was Easter Road that night, while imploring Hibs fans to play their part by recreating that atmosphere on Thursday evening to, hopefully, help Pat Fenlon’s players overcome the two-goal deficit inflicted on them by Malmo in the first leg of their Europa Cup tie in Sweden.
Jack is well aware of events at the Swedbank Stadion as, unable to identify a television channel transmitting the game in his hometown of Dusseldorf, he followed events via a live score up-date on his mobile phone. H
e said: “I have to admit I thought ‘oh my God’ when I saw Hibs had gone two down after just 13 minutes. I was fearing the worst but while it will be difficult to over-turn that scoreline, I think they have, at least, given themselves a fighting chance. I later heard Hibs had missed an early chance and also hit the post which could have given them a very important away goal, but, as we showed against AEK Athens, they aren’t out of it by any means.
“However, it will be vital they don’t concede a goal on Thursday. If they do that, then they will have to score four, which would make it very, very tough. But if they can get two goals over 90 minutes without losing one themselves then, like us in 2001, they would have an extra 30 minutes at home and hopefully they’d be able to do it this time.
“I remember Alex McLeish telling us before the second match against AEK that Greek teams didn’t travel well and I think after the sunshine of their country they didn’t enjoy a ‘perfect’ Scottish night – a bit cooler than the 25C they were used to and a little bit wet. I don’t think they expected us to go at them like we did and they didn’t recover until extra time.
“If I’d been them I’d have been sitting on the plane going back to Greece thinking they’d got out of jail.
“I still remember the game as if it was yesterday. The atmosphere inside Easter Road was fantastic. When people ask me about my best memories of Scotland, that game is up there in the top three, if not at the very top.
“Playing in the Edinburgh derbies was special, as were the games against Celtic and Rangers. There was the [Scottish] Cup final against Celtic and, after I returned to Germany, a final with Rot Weiss Essen against Werder Bremen in Berlin. But the atmosphere against AEK still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it.
“We didn’t hear it because we were in the dressing-room, but I was later told there was an unbelievable rendition of Sunshine on Leith by the fans at half-time. I love that song and only the other week I was on YouTube watching the 2007 League Cup final when the BBC commentator says ‘let’s shut up and listen to the Hibs fans’. It gives you goosebumps.
“Paco scored twice in the second half, but he had a massive chance right on the final whistle, probably the easiest of the lot, and missed it. How sweet would it have been to get a winner at that point? Then AEK scored twice in extra time before David hit one from distance. As everyone knows, we won on the night but it wasn’t enough.”
The former midfielder, now a coach with Fortuna Dusseldorf, admitted the entire UEFA Cup adventure of 2001 was somewhat bizarre, the first leg postponed in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon just seconds before Hibs’ flight took off from Edinburgh Airport.
He said: “I remember sitting on the plane with Alex McLeish and Dougray Scott behind me. The plane was accelerating down the runway when the pilot hit the brakes and told us all games had been cancelled.
“Hundreds of Hibs fans had already left for the game, many of them intent on enjoying some time in the sunshine on the Greek islands before taking in the game. We were told more than 2000 were expected for the original tie, but, as it turned out, there were only 250 to 300 the following week.”
McLeish and his players found a hostile welcome, both as they walked the streets of Athens and again within the Nikos Goumas Stadium. Jack recalled: “We went for a walk on the day of the game for half an hour to stretch our legs and we were told we needed bodyguards – I’m sure I saw at least one pistol, while at the ground there were soldiers standing around with machine guns.
Then inside the ground it was just mad. There were 30-foot fences behind the goals and Greek fans were at the top burning flags and effigies. It was really hostile.”
“The game was scoreless at half-time, but only a few minutes into the second half Ulrik Laursen conceded a softish penalty and then they scored another fairly quickly. We had a tall, strong defence that could usually deal with the ball in the air, but they were allowed a free header at the back post, which was very disappointing.
Then, as today, McLeish’s side were left wondering ‘what if’. As Fenlon’s players ponder on what might have happened had Owain Tudur Jones taken an early chance to put them ahead in the Swedbank Stadion last Thursday, or had Rowan Vine’s shot not hit the post, Jack admitted he still reflects on how Hibs were missing club captain Franck Sauzee through injury for the first match in Athens, which meant the German was handed the captain’s armband, while Zitelli passed up a glorious opportunity to grab that all-important away goal.
Jack said: “It was only natural that after the tie we discussed among ourselves of how it might have been a different story had Franck been fit to the first leg, if David had scored over there, if we’d had 2000 fans and more rather than a couple of hundred and if Paco had managed to complete what would have been a fantastic hat-trick.”
Jack, though, is in no doubt as to what is needed tomorrow night. He said: “People talk of giving 110 per cent, but that’s nonsense. All you can give is 100 per cent. If every player only gives 95 per cent then the team as a whole is missing 55 per cent.
“None of the players should be leaving the pitch tomorrow night with something left in the tank. They have to give everything they have, avoid conceding a goal and try to get one themselves and then we’ll see how the Malmo players react both to that and Easter Road rocking.”