Reaching Europa group stages would top lot for Hibs' Lewis Stevenson
Lewis Stevenson is already assured his place in Hibs folklore as the only player to lift both the League and Scottish Cup.
However, the Easter Road stalwart insists reaching the Europa League group stage would represent his ‘ultimate achievement’.
Few victories have been as cathartic, or prompted such wild celebrations, as the Hibees’ 2016 victory over Rangers which finally saw them capture their Holy Grail after 114 years.
A fresh-faced Stevenson also claimed the man-of-the-match award in the 2007 CIS Cup final for his waspish, confident showing in the 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock.
Nevertheless, European football is an entirely different animal and the 30-year-old has no intention of downplaying the potential magnitude of Hibs reaching the group phase. No club outwith Celtic and Rangers has achieved that since Aberdeen in 2007.
Moreover, as the Hoops have found to their cost, the route through the qualifying process in continental competition has become more trying and increasingly gruelling in keeping with Scotland’s slipping co-efficient in recent years.
Hibs have bucked that trend so far. NSI Runavik were battered, Asteras Tripolis were dispatched and a score draw would be enough to see them eliminate Molde following a 0-0 stalemate at Easter Road last week. Zenit St Petersburg or, as is more likely given their 4-0 win in Belarus, Dinamo Minsk await the victors in the play-off round.
Despite their storied past in Europe – Britain’s maiden representatives on the continent and semi-finalists in the European Cup and Fairs Cup during the 1950s and 1960s – the Edinburgh club have never won three successive ties in a single season.
“I think reaching the group stage would be the ultimate achievement,” said Stevenson. “We had good success in the league last year and have had special runs in the cups, but to do it on the European stage would be incredible. The last couple of seasons, we’ve been beating records here and there. If we did this, it would be the biggest of them all. I didn’t realise how long it had been since we had gone this far in Europe, in terms going through so many successive rounds. In previous years when I first came into the team, you would enjoy the experience and enjoy the European trips, but from the start this year we stated that we wanted to progress and be successful.
“We aren’t quite there yet, but we’ll focus on the game on Thursday and hopefully make history.”
Tonight’s mouth-watering encounter in Norway will represent Hibs’ eighth competitive fixture in slightly shy of five weeks and, unlike some clubs who were able to use the Betfred Cup as a middle-ground between a pre-season schedule and competitive action, Neil Lennon has largely utilised his senior core group.
Indeed, Stevenson has joked that he is spending more time surrounded by his Easter Road colleagues than wife Julia and kids, Louie and Luna.
However, he believes the momentum and bond created during their congested – but undefeated – start to the season could prove invaluable.
“We’ve probably spent more time with each another than we have with our families recently,” he smiled. “But it’s a tight-knit squad and, you never know, that might be the difference.
“We’ve had a lot of games already this season and it is standing us in good stead. Hopefully, this is just a small part of the journey and we still have a long way to go.
“We do a lot of video stuff but, honestly, I think playing games is the best way to prepare for the next one. The boys are up and running and it already feels like it is the middle of the season. I’ve played in Europe when we’ve just had one or two games and it hasn’t quite felt the same, but this time we are match-sharp and ready to go.”
After watching Stevie Mallan hit the crossbar and Molde goalkeeper Andreas Linde excel in Edinburgh, there was an initial disappointment following their 0-0 draw at Easter Road that Hibs did not make their pressure count. It will, however, become an excellent result if Hibs can pinch an away goal at the Aker Stadium.
“We have players in the team who are capable of scoring and changing games that are on a knife-edge,” continued Stevenson. “We’re a dangerous team.
“We’re going to need to score at some point – and be pretty solid at the back as well.”
It was a similarly bullish Molde manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer who had addressed the travelling press corps earlier on Wednesday, promising a very different side from the one that underperformed at Easter Road. A 5-1 win over league leaders Brann last weekend certainly seemed indicative of a team finding their flow.
“We can’t focus on that,” said Stevenson of the eye-catching triumph. “We got a good look at them last week, we’ll be prepared – regardless of their last game – and hopefully we can give them some problems.”