KEVIN THOMSON was still a starry-eyed 16-year-old when he witnessed at close quarters just how special European football can be.
Since that evening in September 2001, when as a rookie Hibs player he watched from behind the dugout as Hibs agonisingly suffered extra-time defeat to AEK Athens in a Uefa Cup tie which entered Easter Road folklore, Thomson has lived his own European dream.
The highlight was a Uefa Cup Final appearance with Rangers in May 2008, the low point just a couple of months later when the Ibrox club crashed out of the Champions League with an ignominious second qualifying round defeat to Kaunas in Lithuania.
As he prepares for his 30th European career appearance tomorrow night when Hibs face Malmo in Sweden in the first leg of their Europa League second qualifying round tie, the 28-year-old midfielder hopes to set up another memorable evening in Leith next week. “The AEK Athens night was probably as good as I can remember for atmosphere,” says Thomson. “It’s the only time I’ve been genuinely nervous sitting watching a game. I sat behind the bench, I had only just signed for the club at 16, and it was just amazing.
“Hibs levelled the tie at 2-2 on aggregate and Paco Luna, who had scored both goals, had a great chance to win it. He missed and AEK went on to win in extra time but the Hibs crowd were unbelievable. Could we replicate that atmosphere this season in Europe? I don’t know, but if we stay in this tie I know our punters will get behind the boys. When the fans produce that kind of atmosphere, it gives the players that extra edge and extra yard. We are going to need that in the second leg.
“It’s going to be hard against Malmo. It’s a challenge but if we are in a tournament, we want to progress. A lot of our players are playing in Europe for the first time. We are optimistic. We need to go over there and give it our best shot. If we can keep the tie alive, then we can get Easter Road rocking for the second leg.
“Europe has been great for me. I’ve played 11 Champions League games and managed to get to a Uefa Cup final with Rangers. When I look back at some of the teams we managed to beat that season, it was breathtaking. Then you get the disappointments like Kaunas. But that’s just what happens in football. Just look at the end of last season here – we beat Hearts at Tynecastle for the first time in four years and then a couple of weeks later it was heartbreak again when we lost the Scottish Cup Final.
“That’s why we are in football. You need to take the disappointments as motivation and hope they are outnumbered by the good days.”
Thomson, who has signed a one-year contract at Hibs after returning to the club for no wages at the end of last season following his release by Middlesbrough, knows the timing of European qualifying round ties adds to the problems Scottish clubs have in making an impact. “It’s definitely difficult for Scottish clubs at this stage of the season when you play teams like Malmo who are midway through their domestic season,” he added. “They definitely have an advantage, there’s no getting away from that. But it’s not an excuse. We have been in early for pre-season training, we’ve had three warm-up matches. The preparations over in Portugal were spot-on. Jimmy Nicholl has come in as assistant manager and he’s been fantastic.
“It’s now up to the boys to produce on the park. The competitive games are coming and this is where we will be judged. I think we have the basis of a competitive squad and it’s up to us to show it. I’d like to think I could pass on some of my European experience. How you do that, I don’t know. When you play in Europe, the ball doesn’t change hands as much as it does in SPL games. So we are going to need to be bright and organised.
“We’ve got a group of boys who would run through brick walls. There are plenty of legs, enthusiasm and quality in this squad. We know we are up against it, we know Malmo are a good team. But you expect to play good teams when you are in Europe. I spoke to Steven Whittaker at the weekend who played for Rangers when they lost to Malmo two years ago. He said they are decent, although he felt Rangers were the better team and would have beaten them if they’d taken their chances.
“I don’t think we will be going over there to park the bus. But we need to not be naive and think we can go hell for leather, That’s where the experience comes in. Normally, if you go 1-0 down in a game, you feel you have to go chasing for an equaliser. A 1-0 defeat wouldn’t be acceptable in Malmo, but it wouldn’t be the worst result in the world.
“The young boys need to know that we just need to stay in the tie. They need to show discipline, not just for the first ten minutes but for the whole night to give us a live chance of progressing in the second leg.”