Colin Stein: Holding clues to success for Hibs

COLIN STEIN laughs at the idea that John Hughes will be taking his squad into the unknown this week when they embark on the first leg of their Europa League qualifier in Slovenia.

Stein's final European tie for Hibs saw the team travel to that part of the world in 1968, to play Olympia Ljubljana, and he says those were the days when players really were going into matches totally unaware of what to expect.

"Nowadays they do all their homework. The manager will have had somebody watch them or he will have seen recordings of games or checked out some of the players. The Hibs players won't be going into it blind. People say they are going into the unknown but we were the ones going into the unknown."

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But ignorance proved bliss for Stein and co. Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia at that point and despite the first match being played in something of a mud-bath following a heavy downpour, they won the first leg 3-0, with one of the goals coming from Stein. When the second leg was played at Easter Road two weeks later Hibs completed the task with another victory. They had gone behind but two Joe Davis penalties, one after Stein was felled, gave them a 5-1 aggregate score.

"Most of the time we didn't know anything about the teams we played in Europe, unless it was the likes of the Napoli game were we came back from 4-1 down in the first leg to win the second leg at home 5-0, despite the fact their goalkeeper was Dino Zoff, who was the Italian keeper and eventually went on to become the Italian manager.

"You knew about the top internationals like Zoff but with most of the teams, especially in the early rounds, we wouldn't have somebody going to watch them and reporting back to us. For us they really were just places on a map and the players were just names on paper."

But while Hughes will ensure his players are better briefed ahead of this week's start to their competitive season, there is one thing he can't give his squad - the kind of European experience enjoyed by the 1960s team.

"We were in Europe a lot at that time but you have to remember we had some very good players and a right good team," said Stein. "We had a history in Europe, being the first British side to compete and all the players loved those European nights. You didn't know what you were going to get when you went away from home but you knew it would always be a great atmosphere and a night to remember at Easter Road."

Hibs will play the second leg of the tie in their newly-completed stadium, following the close-season work on the East Stand and while it may not crammed with the kind of 50-60,000 crowds who squeezed in to watch the likes of Barcelona and Napoli all those years ago, Stein says it will be a night for the home players to treasure - provided they can ensure they are still in the tie.

"It is an advantage to have the home game second because you know what you have to do, like we did against Napoli, but I'm not sure this team would cope being three goals down and I hope we don't have to find out.

"This first tie is important and they just need to make sure they do enough to take it back to Easter Road, still in with a good chance. Everyone will turn up and the atmosphere will be great in the new stand."

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Slovenia's ability to qualify for this summer's World Cup suggests there is some quality in their domestic game and Stein knows Hibs will have to be wary of Maribor.

"The one thing that hasn't changed is the team you face in Europe are a bit more fluid, and like to pass the ball through the midfield a lot more than the SPL, where they just kick lumps out each other."