EASTER Road has been chosen to be the venue as the Scotland Under-21 side aim to provide a significant week for Scottish football with a thrilling start against Iceland in the second leg of their European Championship qualifying play-off tie next month.
• Billy Stark: Big opportunity
Focus will be trained on the east side of the country on Monday 11 October when Billy Stark's side seek to provide a fillip for the senior team, who entertain world champions Spain at Hampden Park the following evening. The stakes are also high, perhaps higher, for the Under 21s, who face a decisive clash with Iceland. The first leg of the tie will be staged in Iceland on Thursday 7 October.
The Scottish Football Association have already pulled off a coup by succeeding in re-arranging the dates of the matches. The original schedule had both the Under-21 side and Craig Levein's senior team playing on the same day but in the hope that a bumper crowd will roar on the Under 21s the SFA have reached agreement with their Icelandic counterparts to bring both legs of the tie forward by 24 hours. Uefa rubber-stamped this arrangement on Tuesday and the SFA are set to confirm Easter Road as the venue for the second leg by the end of this week.
The choice rewards Hibernian after they completed the redevelopment of Easter Road with the opening of the new East Stand earlier this season. The capacity of the ground is now more than 20,000, up from a figure of 17,500 when the East Terrace was in place. Whether this limit will be tested next month remains to be seen but the attendance will certainly out-strip the number at Pittodrie last week, when the Under 21s sealed their place in the play-offs with a 2-1 victory over Austria. Aberdeen's Chris Maguire scored a last minute winner at his home stadium to send Scotland into the draw but only 2,064 were there to witness the drama. The game took place on the same day as Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifier against Liechtenstein at Hampden Park, and the potential for enticing spectators to the match was further compromised by the 4pm kick-off.
Almost 12,000 turned up at Easter Road to watch the Scotland Under-21 side narrowly fail to reach the European Championship finals at the same stage six years ago. The Scots had also been drawn to play the first leg of the play-off against Croatia away from home first. They returned to engage with the task of overturning a 2-0 deficit. A side including Craig Gordon, Garry O'Connor and Kevin Kyle were frustrated in the end, winning 1-0 on the night at Easter Road. O'Connor, then with Hibs, scored after just 11 minutes but Rainer Bonhof's Scotland proved unable to add to this tally on an exciting evening in Leith.
Stark will hope for a better outcome, though the Under 21s have played at Easter Road since that evening in 2003.The intention is to take games around the country, with Easter Road having been favoured to host a match on which rests Scotland's ambition to be one of eight teams at next summer's finals. Hibs' ground is the only stadium in the country outwith Glasgow with a pitch that is fully Fifa compliant.
Hibs legends Pat Stanton and Lawrie Reilly both applauded the choice of venue, although Scotland will hope to have better fortune on this 'home' ground than the landlords have had of late. John Hughes' side have not won at Easter Road since March.
"It's a magnificent stadium now it is completed," said Stanton. "It's ideal for such a game and the young players will love playing there.
"This type of fixture also gives people the chance to see players they might not normally watch. They are the future and it's right that they should be given such a stage. I am biased, but Easter Road is a bit special. Hampden Park is the national stadium and everyone wants to play there but it's not a bad thing to hand games to other parts of the country. Hampden is the best place for Scotland games but it's great that the kids get to play in the capital, and at a first-class stadium."
Stanton challenged football fans in Edinburgh to help make it another epic night at Easter Road, one to rival his favourite recent memory of the stadium, "The day Hibs came close to pulling off a result against AEK Athens sticks in the mind," said Stanton, with reference to the second leg of the Uefa Cup tie between the sides in 2001. Hibs won 3-2 but lost 3-4 on aggregate. "As a player, I remember midweek games against Leeds, Liverpool and Sporting Lisbon having a special atmosphere. It's a long time ago, but I still remember them vividly."
Reilly, who played 38 times for Scotland, added: "There's nothing like playing under the lights at Easter Road."