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  • So Near And Yet So Far

    It's a game we still talk about even though winning on the night was not enough. It's AEK revisited!!
    Strange as it may seem, losing in a Scottish Cup Final after 100 years of trying to avoid such a fate, actually led to Hibs being involved in a match of such excitement it is still talked about some seven years later.
    The Scottish Cup Final in question was the 2001 Hampden confrontation between Hibernian and Celtic which the Glasgow club won 3-0 but which resulted in Hibs getting back into European competition for the first time since September 1992 when Anderlecht eliminated them from the UEFA Cup on the away goals rule.
    When the draw for the UEFA Cup first round was made Hibs were pitched up against crack Greek outfit AEK Athens in what would provide a very stiff test if progress to round two were to be achieved. At that time I was a regular contributor of articles, interviews and match reports for Hibs.net under its previous ownership and so when the opportunity arose to be in Athens for the first leg I didnít need to be asked twice! Amazingly, I was to be one of a group of four and that included site owner and webmaster Stuart Crowther, Mike Burns as Editor of Mass Hibsteria, myself and a certain gentleman by the name of Patrick Gordon Stanton. In my years of following Hibs I had identified many favourite players but the number one man for me was always Pat Stanton and so I was hugely thrilled to be in his company for the trip.

    The first leg match was scheduled for 13 September 2001 and of course just two days earlier the terrible events concerning the Twin Towers had dominated all the news headlines and reports on the various television and radio stations. With that in mind the four of us were perhaps understandably a bit nervous as we boarded our flight in Edinburgh but those nerves soon disappeared when we sat listening to the many fascinating stories Pat had to tell. As the flight touched down everyone who had a mobile phone switched it on and of course there were dozens of simultaneous bleeps and buzzes ringing out as the news filtered through that UEFA, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that all football matches scheduled for that week would be postponed. Outrage soon took over from disappointment as many people had spent a small fortune making the trip and now they would not see Hibs in action.

    Our return flight could not be brought forward and so we all had to just carry on with the planned trip, minus the match itself. After booking into our hotel and freshening up we ventured out into the centre of Athens and soon found hundreds of good natured Hibbies thronging the streets and pavement bars and singing a full repertoire of Hibernian songs. It was amazing to walk through them at Patís side and hear the fans acclaiming a true Hibernian legend. Eventually we managed to find a table at a restaurant and have a meal after which Pat and Stuart decided to head back to the hotel whilst Mike and I opted to stay and join in the singing with the fans! Several hours later and feeling quite hoarse, Mike and I returned to the hotel only to find Messrs Stanton and Crowther sitting with a group of Hibbies and talking all things Hibernian.

    The following day we were told that our return flight would be later that afternoon and so we worked towards getting to the airport on time. Disappointed at not having seen the match, we still had a good time in Athens and certainly enjoyed the company. Just prior to taking off we heard that the game had been rescheduled for a week on, 20 September and of the four of us only I would be able to make the second trip. That trip was duly made, I watched Hibs lose 2-0 although I felt the scoreline flattered the hosts and of course Franck Sauzee had been missing due to injury and might well have helped secure a better result had he been available. I also witnessed the totally scary behaviour of the home fans as they seemed able to do as they pleased whilst the Greek police were pretty strict and unhelpful towards the Hibs fans.

    A week later at Easter Road a match unfolded in front of 16,647 supporters that had everyone on the edge of their seat from start to finish and generated an atmosphere I have not seen duplicated at the ground since. Two goals was a big target in that Hibs needed three without reply to get through. Of course the Hibees had a wee bit of a history of overcoming seemingly difficult deficits as back in 1967 Napoli had brought a 4-1 first leg lead to Easter Road and had been blitzed 5-0 by Hibernian, even though the Italians had many internationals in their side including goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Those of us of a vintage to have witnessed the Napoli game were praying for another miracle night at Easter Road and Hibs so very nearly provided just that. Athens wore their traditional yellow tops and back shorts but it was all about the men in green and white for large portions of the match. From the off Hibs bombarded the inexperienced Chiotis in the visiting goal and he had a few hairy moments as various efforts went close to beating him. Somehow he got to half time with his goal intact but it was surely only a matter of time as two veterans in the Hibs eleven seemed to be pulling the strings. Everyone remembers how immense Franck Sauzee was in that first half but few recall the equally telling contribution made by Craig Brewster up front as he led the Athens central defenders a merry dance.

    The atmosphere in the stadium was electric and just eight minutes into the second half there was an explosion of noise as Hibernian took the lead. Breaking down the Hibs right, De La Cruz fired in a deep cross that was flicked on by Brewster to Ian Murray who quickly headed the ball back across goal for the little Spaniard Paco Luna to bullet home a header. The Greeks were stung by this and tried to fight back with Konstantinidis coming close to equalising and perhaps taking the tie beyond their hosts but Hibs weathered that storm only to suffer a major blow around twelve minutes from time when Sauzee had to go off injured. Amazingly, just three minutes later Hibs levelled the tie on aggregate and it was that man Luna once again. Another deep cross from the Hibernian right found Ulrik Laursen in space at the back post. The big Dane knocked the ball into the centre of the Athens goal and Luna bundled it into the net from close range whereupon he was immediately engulfed by his team mates in a huge celebration.

    The visitors were looking mightily rattled at this stage and must, like everyone else in the stadium, have thought they were out of the tournament when in the dying seconds Grant Brebner sent a tempting cross into the AEK box that saw Paco Luna rise the highest and send a header towards goal. Everything seemed to move in slow motion for that second or two. Fans were rising, arms aloft and beginning to shout for a goal but somehow the ball drifted just over the bar and seconds later the final whistle sounded. Extra time was required and as the managers addressed their players out on the pitch the strains of Sunshine on Leith echoed from the PA system and had just about every Hibs fan on their feet singing along. From my place in the press box at the back of the West Stand I looked across the park to the East and had a lump in my throat as I watched and listened to them getting right behind the team.

    In hindsight I would argue that AEK took inspiration from the fact that they had escaped defeat at the end of the ninety minutes and so looked to the additional thirty to push themselves through. That fact and the bringing on of their inspirational captain Tsartas seemed to make all the difference as just two minutes into extra time he collected a loose ball some twenty five yards out, took a step or two forward, steadied himself and fired a glorious low drive into the Hibs net. The silence was deafening as the home fans looked on stunned at this strike and it certainly settled AEK down as they relaxed into their game and Tsartas struck again on the stroke of half time to make it 2-2 on the night and 4-2 to Athens on aggregate. Effectively Hibs needed to score three more goals in fifteen minutes without conceding and that was a pretty tall order. Alex McLeish decided to bring David Zitelli off the bench and it proved a good move as the Frenchman struck the goal of the tie from thirty five yards but although it won the game 3-2 on the night it was not enough to continue the European dream.

    It canít be often that Hibs fans recall a game with such excitement and affection that we actually ended up going out of a tournament because we hadnít done enough to progress. I certainly recall it vividly and I would love for Hibs to be serving that kind of European night up on a more regular basis. Mind you, if it happened too often maybe it wouldnít have the same kind of magic? Iíd be willing to test that theory out mind you!

    **Image courtesy of hibsprogrammes.co.uk**
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