Shiels urges Hibs to claim European spot

DEAN SHIELS today implored his former Easter Road team-mates to clinch their place in Europe as soon as possible – and avoid the nerve-shredding experience he went through on the final day of the season five years ago.

Away back then, Hibs went into their last SPL match against Rangers in third place, three points ahead of Aberdeen – who were facing Capital rivals Hearts at Pittodrie that day – and enjoying a superior goal difference.

As such, Tony Mowbray's side knew their hopes of qualifying for the UEFA Cup were on a knife-edge while Rangers arrived in Edinburgh knowing it would take an extraordinary chain of events to wrestle the title from arch-rivals Celtic.

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Two points clear at the top, a win for the Hoops against Motherwell at Fir Park would be enough for Martin O'Neill's players to be champions no matter what happened at Easter Road.

Even when Nacho Novo fired the Ibrox club ahead early in the second half, the blue and white hordes behind Simon Brown's goal remained subdued, well aware Chris Sutton had already put Celtic one up. Meanwhile, the Hibs support began chewing their finger-nails as news filtered through that Richie Byrne and Derek Adams had claimed two quick-fire goals for the Dons, hauling Aberdeen level on the 61-point mark while the advantage of a better goals difference had rapidly diminished.

But suddenly the Rangers support erupted as news that Scott McDonald had equalised for Motherwell with just two minutes remaining filtered through, their joy becoming unconfined as it was confirmed the Australian striker had scored again forcing the helicopter which had been carrying the SPL trophy towards Lanarkshire to divert east.

Soon the Hibs fans had cause for celebrations of their own as the final whistle sounded at Pittodrie, the Dons unable to score any further goals leaving the Easter Road outfit to look forward to European football the following season.

Today, Shiels, now with English Championship side Doncaster Rovers where he has retained the No.22 shirt he wore at Easter Road, recalled: "It was one of the most surreal afternoons of my life, Rangers were happy at 1-0, content to pass the ball about at the back rather than push for a second goal.

"We were happy to let them do that as the scoreline also suited us. The Rangers fans had been pretty quiet because they knew Celtic were winning but then they started making a noise when they heard what was happening at Fir Park.

"To be honest, I didn't care who won the league as long as we got into Europe."

The Northern Ireland internationalist plans to be at Easter Road on Sunday following his new club's clash with Scunthorpe United the previous day and, he admitted, he'll be hoping to see John Hughes' side strengthen their grip on a place in next season's Europa League.

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At present, Hibs lie two points ahead of fifth-placed Motherwell and six in front of Hearts, occupying the last guaranteed place in Europe and a position Shiels believes they can hold onto.

He said: "I know things haven't been going too well recently – the Hibs result is still the first one I look for every weekend – but I still fancy them to hold onto fourth place.

"I've been to a few games and the team got off to a really good start when there was even talk of splitting the Old Firm.

"They've got a strikeforce in Derek Riordan and Anthony Stokes which is comparable to anything either Rangers or Celtic have.

"But they don't seem to have been able to keep it going since the turn of the year.

"It's that old problem of consistency which teams outwith the Old Firm seem to struggle to find.

"However, they are still very much in with a shout for Europe and I fancy them to finish fourth. It's maybe a bit disappointing after the position they were in a few months ago but, after finishing sixth three seasons in a row to finish fourth would, overall, be a job well done.

"I wouldn't, though, want to see them having to go through all those emotions on the final day of the season as we did five years ago. I'm sure John Hughes and the boys will want to get that European place wrapped up before then."

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In addition to his visits to Edinburgh, Shiels remains in close touch with former team-mates such as Riordan, Colin Nish and Ian Murray while he knows Stokes, Patrick Cregg and Graham Stack well from his early days with Arsenal.

He said: "Patrick and I used to be in the same digs as youngsters in London and I played with Anthony as well.

"I speak regularly to a few of the boys and I've played the FIFA game on the X-Box with Deeks. We just switch on the computers, put on the headsets and chat away – plus, he's not beaten me yet!"

Like Hibs, Shiels' own season has been somewhat mixed, Doncaster's hopes of making the play-offs to determine which side will join Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League next season, disappearing in a run of defeats to Plymouth, Blackpool and WBA over the Easter period.

Nevertheless, Shiels, who ended that string of setbacks by netting a penalty equaliser against Ipswich Town at the weekend, insisted he's thoroughly enjoyed what has been his first full season in the Championship, admitting he's relished the new challenge having found the familiarity of the SPL somewhat suffocating.

He said: "Don't get me wrong, the SPL is a good league but I'd been at Hibs five years and you found yourself coming up against the same players, the same teams all the time.

"You play each other four, five or six times a season and every time you turn on the television it's either Rangers or Celtic.

"The year we won the CIS Cup, we played Aberdeen six times and, at one stage, we faced them three times in four games. The same thing happens all the time, Rangers played St Mirren six times this season and will have half-a-dozen games against Dundee United.

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"The Championship in England is a very tough league, very competitive and, apparently, the fourth-best supported in Europe – at the weekend our match at Portman Road had a crowd of just on 20,000, something that's unheard of in Scotland outside Ibrox or Parkhead. It's great going to different grounds, some of them, like Cardiff and Swansea, brand new, and you just need to look at some of the teams in it, Newcastle, West Brom, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and so on.

"There's lots of good teams and players, it's very exciting and one of the highlights for me has to be scoring at St James' Park.

"It's just been a bit disappointing not to still be in contention for a play-off place and the hope of making the final at Wembley.

"We were only three points off it at one stage but that tough programme over Easter ended that dream so now we are looking to ensure we have a top-ten finish."