AS a player and manager in Ireland Pat Fenlon enjoyed annual flirtations with European football, the highlight probably being reaching the third qualifying round of the Champions League while in charge of Shelbourne Rovers.
It’s a stage he readily admits he’s missed, but if absence makes the heart grow fonder, there’s no-one relishing Hibs Europa League clash with Malmo, the leaders of Sweden’s Allsvenskan, more than the Irishman.
Fenlon brings more experience to the table than most of the players in his charge, only Kevin Thomson having any great knowledge of football at this level thanks mainly to his time as a Rangers player during which he enjoyed playing in the final of the old Uefa Cup.
But, once again, the Irishman is looking to pit his wits against the best the continent has to offer, in this case Malmo manager Rikard Norling who, flanked by his captain Jiloan Hamad and midfielder Markus Halsti, had, probably correctly, exuded a quiet confidence when he’d conducted his own press conference in the Swedbank Stadion earlier in the day.
Fenlon had no quibble with Malmo, who are halfway through their season and moved a point clear in their own domestic league with an impressive 4-0 win over Atvidabergs at the weekend, being cast in the role of favourites but, in his estimation, that is no guarantee of victory.
Nevertheless, he conceded the primary objective of tonight’s action will be to keep this second qualifying round tie alive ahead of the second leg back at Easter Road in seven days’ time, an objective which he doesn’t believe is beyond his squad, even although Ryan McGivern joins Tim Clancy on the sidelines while 18-year-old Alex Harris is rated in the “highly doubtful” bracket and Fraser Mullen is considered a little way short of full fitness.
Asked if he felt Europe brought the best out of him on a personal level, Fenlon, who had ensured Malmo were watched three times as he laid his plans, replied: “I would like to think so. The challenge of different opposition, that’s the challenge to everyone, players and managers alike.
“You enjoy it because you are going in to the total unknown, new stadia, new players. I’ve had a lot of games in Europe as a player and manager, it’s probably up around 35 or 40 now. It’s something you get used to, something you want to be part of.”
Fenlon revealed that, while his long-term plan had been to return Hibs, Britain’s first representatives in the old European Cup, to this particular stage, it had come upon him sooner than he’d expected thanks to a second successive Scottish Cup final, May’s defeat by Celtic bringing this runners-up prize.
However, having said that, he added: “Now we are here we are going to make the most of it. We have to make sure we manage the two games properly and realise it cannot be won and lost on the first day.
“We have to make sure we play well, that we are solid enough defensively but are capable of scoring goals as well. The ideal scenario is to nick an away goal and take it back to Easter Road. But they are a decent side, they don’t lose too many games here, so it will be tough for us.”
Captain James McPake shared his manager’s assessment, optimistic but also cautious and at the same time excited as he prepares to play in Europe for the first time at the age of 29.
He revealed, however, that his excitement was shared by the entire travelling party, including Thomson. He said: “We’ve had a shorter holiday than normal, but now the hard work is over and done with and we are ready to play competitive matches. There’s a bit of a buzz about the place.
“It’s another massive game, I’ve played in the Scottish Cup final, Edinburgh derbies but this is my first time in Europe. I’m excited, but I think Kevin is as excited as anyone else and he has racked up a fair few appearances.”
McPake admitted he wasn’t immersed in Hibs history when he first arrived at the club, initially on loan some 19 months ago, but disclosed the myriad of photographs which adorn the walls of the club’s training centre and Easter Road itself had brought home to him just what night’s like tonight mean.
He said: “I said 18 months ago that this club has been under-achieving and I stand by that today. Your top clubs should be involved in Europe and Hibs are one of the top clubs in Scotland.”