BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
STEVEN WHITTAKER is no stranger to European glory nights after reaching the UEFA Cup final with Rangers – and he is determined to enjoy plenty more with Hibs.
The 34-year-old was a pivotal part of the Gers side which enjoyed an unforgettable run to the Manchester showpiece in 2008, with his mazy solo goal against Sporting Lisbon in Portugal going down in Ibrox folklore.
While Walter Smith’s men ultimately succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to Dick Advocaat’s Zenit St Petersburg side, the remarkable journey ensures that Whittaker has plenty of pedigree ahead of another continental adventure with the Hibees.
Hibs have been handed a trip into the unknown in their Europa League first qualifying round clash in the form of NSI Runavik, should they see off the Faroe Island part-timers, then an altogether tougher tie against Greek cracks Asteras Tripolis awaits.
“I’ve got some fantastic memories of playing in Europe – obviously 2008 was a highlight and that goal [against Sporting Lisbon] in particular was something special,” recalled Whittaker.
“We’d love to go on a run this year and give the fans a few trips away, but to do that we need to get through the first round.
“I don’t know much about the team we’re playing at the moment but I’m sure we’ll be able to do some analysis in the build-up to the game. For now we’re all just enjoying being back in at training and working hard to get the fitness levels back.”
It will be Whittaker’s first European outing for Hibs since Tony Mowbray’s side were eliminated from the Intertoto Cup by Odense in 2006.
“It’ll be good to get back into European football. Last season was a great one for the club and the boys were all looking forward to finding out who we were playing,” continued Whittaker.
“We had a few games in Europe when I was younger, the Dnipro games and then a few matches in the Intertoto Cup.
“However, the squad we have now is a lot more experienced – the likes of the gaffer [Neil Lennon] and Efe [Ambrose] have plenty from their Celtic days and Paul [Hanlon] and Lewis [Stevenson] have been there a few times with Hibs now.
Lennon, meanwhile, is adamant Hibs will not underestimate Runavik after insisting their summer football calendar will make the minnows a dangerous proposition.
Hailing from the tiny village of the same name in the Eysturoy region, Runavik have NEVER won a European tie over two legs and currently lie in third place in the Meisttaradeilden after fourteen fixtures.
Lennon knows Hibs will be overwhelming favourites to dump out Runavik – however he is wary of an opposition who have so much competitive football under their belt.
“We can’t afford to be complacent,” he said. “There are always surprises at this time of the season in Europe – lack of sharpness or focus, playing in tough conditions, or a lack of knowledge on the opposition.
“We’ll be up against a side midway through their league season so they’ll obviously be well prepared, so it’s important we get our work in over the coming weeks to get the fitness levels up and try to get a bit of sharpness for the game.
“When we knew we’d qualified the pre-season schedule was confirmed with a view to us being ready for [July] the 12th, and that’s what we need to be.
“It’s exciting for the players and the supporters – the draw makes it feel a bit more real and something to aim towards.”
That tie ended in heartbreaking fashion, as the Hibees were defeated on penalties despite claiming a heroic 1-0 triumph in Copenhagen to cancel out a deficit from the first leg at Easter Road.
Lennon told Hibs’ official website: “Against Brondby a few years ago it was my first game in charge and we hadn’t had much time to prepare, where as with these matches the squad is more settled and we have the experience of those ties to call upon.”