Remembering Hibs' last adventure into European football
It's official. Hibs are back in Europe next season.
It may have only been three years since this last venture outwith these shores, but three years is a long time, especially when eager supporters have been cooked up in the house for over 12 months. They’re already dreaming of lockdown restrictions being loosened enough to allow them to travel to some as-yet-unknown sunkissed corner of the continent to watch their team in action.
The previous campaign lasted just three rounds in Europa League qualifying, but those six matches were the most Hibs have played in a single campaign since 1970 (and their joint-second longest ever). It will be beaten next season if either Hibs or Rangers win the Scottish Cup – assuming Jack Ross' side finish third – getting them the guarantee of a Europa League play-off and the insurance of a place in the new Europa Conference League should they fail to advance.
Off the back of a tremendous 2017/18 season there was a buzz around Hibs as they embarked on their adventure. The much-vaunted midfield three of Dylan McGeouch, Scott Allan and John McGinn had been split up. McGeouch opted to leave at the end of his contract while Allan returned to Parkhead after his loan expired. McGinn also had one foot out of the door with Celtic keen on his services as the influential midfielder entered the last year of his deal. However, Florian Kamberi had signed on a permanent deal following his successful loan, while there was an expectation that strike-partner Jamie Maclaren would soon join him.
Things started routinely enough with a visit of Faroese side Runavik to Easter Road. Kamberi took just three minutes to score on his second debut and would have a hat-trick before things had properly got going in the second half. New signing Stevie Mallan bagged a double, while youngster Oli Shaw added the other. Runavik were able to get themselves on the scoresheet – the ten men could at least console themselves with a 1-1 draw over the final 40 minutes of the match – but the tie was over before the return trip.
Hibs still made surprisingly hard work of it, though. A back three of Steven Whittaker, Efe Ambrose and Ryan Porteous were at sixes and sevens as the hosts managed to race into a 2-0 lead and eventually hung four goals on their opponents. Thankfully, the tourists answered with another six of their own to win 12-5 on aggregate.
So on to the next round they went and a meeting with Asteras Tripolis. The Greek side were looked upon as a tricky opponent and so it proved when Georgios Kyriakopoulous fired two goals in the first 35 minutes as the visitors looked a real threat on the counter attack.
For the 14,000 inside the ‘Leith San Siro’ that night, it appeared the European campaign would be over in a hurry. However, Hibs, with a little bit more toughness in them under Neil Lennon’s stewardship than many previous regimes, came roaring back in the second period. Efe Ambrose reduced the arrears on 64 minutes before David Gray, on as a half-time substitute, levelled the tie and almost took the roof off the stadium.
If the noise was deafening when the captain hammered his finish home, it was nothing compared to the decibel levels in injury-time when Kamberi followed up Martin Boyle’s effort to give the hosts an unlikely victory in the third minute of stoppage time.
A 3-2 advantage with two away goals for their opponents wasn’t an ideal advantage for Lennon’s men, but with the emphasis now on Asteras Tripolis to go and win the tie the hope was that Hibs would have their own success hitting them on the break. And so it would prove with Kamberi pressuring and then picking up a slack pass from captain Matías Iglesias. The Swiss striker was joined on the two-man charge by McGinn, who made no mistake with his finish, firing into the far bottom corner and sparking delirium among the travelling Hibs fans behind the goal.
A red card shown to Michalis Manias shortly after the break offered a degree of comfort to those of a green-and-white persuasion counting down the minutes, but the feeling of relief wouldn’t last long. Kosmas Tsilianidis equalised on the night and meant Hibs were still a goal away from elimination. In the end, they were thankful for a top performance from summer signing Adam Bogdan, deputising for the injured Ofir Marciano, to see them through. And so on to the next round they went.
Molde was a welcome draw compared with some of the big hitters they could have faced, but still a difficult hurdle to navigate. It became significantly tougher just 24 hours before the first leg when McGinn completed his long-awaited move away from the club – though at least there was the silver lining of Aston Villa gazumping Celtic and ensuring the fans’ favourite wouldn’t be returning to Easter Road anytime soon in a rival club’s colours.
By this point Maclaren had signed on for a second loan spell, though he was only fit enough for a short cameo in a goalless first leg at Easter Road. Lennon decided to throw caution to the wind in the return match, reuniting Maclaren and Kamberi in attack. Things may have been different had the former converted a header with the score at 0-0. Or had Boyle tied things up with the visitors trailing by a goal in the second half. As it was, Norwegian superstar Erling Haaland netted a double while Fredrik Aursnes scored another in a comprehensive 3-0 win.
Molde were eliminated in the play-off round by Zenit St Petersburg. As for Hibs, a bright start to the league campaign soon faded with Lennon ultimately leaving the club the following February.