Watching Emil Forsberg score the deflected winner for Sweden against Switzerland in their World Cup last-16 clash last week was an uncomfortable reminder for Lewis Stevenson of playing a European tie while feeling slightly undercooked.
There’s unlikely to be anyone in the Faroese side NSI Nunavik, Hibs’ opponents on Thursday in a Europa League qualifying tie, as talented as Forsberg, who Stevenson faced in a Europa League qualifier on a distressing night five years ago against Malmo. Forsberg has since left Malmo for Leipzig and is now being linked with a £45 million move to Arsenal. For a few moments back then he had Stevenson questioning his own worth. If a guy playing in a Europa League qualifier had him on toast in an embarrassing 7-0 thrashing, was there any point going on?
Well yes, there was. Not only is Stevenson about to begin an incredible 14th season as a Hibs first-team player, he has since added the Scottish Cup to a League Cup winner’s medal won in 2007. As of this summer he has also become a Scotland international. Stevenson made a very reasonable fist of filling in at left-back for the absent Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson against Peru.
“I know myself I can’t really compete with them if they are playing well and fit,” said Stevenson. “Barry Douglas had to pull out as well, so I understand that’s how I got the chance to go. If something like that ever happens again, hopefully I’ve done enough to show I can step up if need be.
“I would probably never have gone to Peru in my life, so it was nice to experience going to a different country and playing with different players,” he added. “Just the whole experience of the set-up and being away with the national team. It was a fantastic honour and I gave up on that dream years ago so it was nice to get a wee chance.”
It was a novel experience for Stevenson since it was the first time he had played for a team other than Hibs since he last appeared for the Under 21s, a dozen years ago. He performed as admirably as he invariably does when there is a Hibs badge on his chest. He’s as proud to play for Scotland as he is Hibs, the club where he has spent his entire career. Now 30, he relished a belated international call-up.
“I think I was one of the oldest in the squad, but I’ve never even had that experience of moving teams so it was strange,” he reflected. “It had been 12 years since I’d been with the 21s. It was a strange experience but an amazing experience as well and something I’ll remember forever.”
He wants to make one thing clear; he never withdrew from the squad to go on holiday prior to the second game against Mexico. It was something pre-arranged with Alex McLeish. Stevenson’s family were already in Florida and he left to join them on a holiday that was booked before he was named in McLeish’s unfamiliar looking squad.
“I never thought I was going to be in the squad, so I had something else planned,” he explained. “It was pre-arranged, I didn’t just pull out after the first game, it was kind of done before.”
The consequence of this holiday was his wife did not even see him make his debut in Lima on television. “My wife was [already] on holiday,” he said. “They went out to try and find the Peru game and they couldn’t find it anywhere and then they found they had it on in the hotel the whole time, so they missed the game, they missed my big moment. I told them I played a lot better than I did.” The self-deprecation is typical Stevenson, who was singled out by McLeish for praise after his performance at the Estadio Nacional del Peru. He’s also being hard on himself when upbraiding himself for his performance in the 7-0 defeat by Malmo. No one in a Hibs shirt could claim to have played well that night. He was also playing out of position at right-back, where he met Forsberg, who scored one of the rampant Swedish side’s goals that night.
“At the time, I was thinking who’s this guy and kind of doubting myself,” recalled Stevenson. “I was playing right-back against him as well, so to be honest I was pleased to see him going on to do well, it made me feel a bit better about myself.
“It was a strange time for the club,” Stevenson added. “We played the away game and got beat 2-1 and that could easily have been five or six to be honest. The expectation was on us to go and put on a good show but they were a top team.”
NSI Runavik are not Malmo. They should not hand Hibs too many problems. But Stevenson is right to remain wary. He offers last weekend’s tight victory over Linlithgow Rose as evidence of what can happen at tight, smaller venues, where the hosts are desperate to make their mark. Hibs will hope to ease their passage into the next round with a handsome victory at Easter Road on Thursday before the away leg a week later.