BY ALAN TEMPLE in TÓRSHAVN – @CCP_Sport
DANNY SWANSON will have no shortage of motivation when Hibernian inevitably cross swords with Asteras Tripolis, after enduring his fair share of Greek tragedy – both as a player and a supporter.
Boasting a 6-1 aggregate lead against Faroe Island minnows NSI Runavik ahead of tomorrow’s return leg in Toftir, it would take the most humiliating collapse in the history of Scottish football to rob the capital club of their outing in Arcadia.
So, Swanson can be forgiven for casting a hungry glance at the altogether more glamorous, and onerous, test awaiting them in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
Indeed, he has a few scores to settle.
The 31-year-old was part of the Dundee United side defeated 2-1 on aggregate by AEK Athens in 2010. Not only did Swanson suffer a heartbreaking continental exit, he was robbed of the opportunity to experience the famed rancour of the home fans following a farcical build-up to the tie.
The Olympic Stadium in Athens was deemed unplayable because of a waterlogged pitch, meaning the match was then switched to the home of Panionios – only for their fans to sabotage that plan by digging up the turf and daubing anti-AEK graffiti on the walls.
After talks with Uefa, the venue was changed for a THIRD time and went ahead at Olympiakos’ Karaiskakis Stadium, however no Greek fans were permitted to attend.
“I’ve a had a couple of experiences of Europe when I was at United – Slask Wroclaw and AEK Athens,” recalled Swanson.
“Greece was good, although because of the issues with the pitch and other fans it was basically behind closed doors.
“We ended up playing the game at Olympiakos’ stadium, which was a brilliant venue to experience, and actually got really close to going through. We drew over there, but lost [2-1 on aggregate] because they won 1-0 at Tannadice.
“It was a weird game. We were stuck in our hotel and not allowed out for security reasons because of everything that had gone on. We got a police escort all the way to the stadium – then there was nobody there!
“Before the game all the boys were talking about how Greece is famous for the atmosphere and the fans, and then we ended up playing in front of an empty ground!
“So, I’m looking forward to finally sampling that atmosphere.”
It should have been an unforgettable tie for Swanson, given Hibs’ own famous Uefa Cup tie against AEK remains one of his fondest memories as a boyhood fan – even if that night ultimately ended in agony, too.
Seeking to mount a miraculous comeback following a 2-0 reverse in Greece in the first leg, a double from Paco Luna restored parity on aggregate at a thundering Easter Road, only for Vassilis Tsartas to bag a brace in extra-time to kill the tie before David Zitelli’s late consolation.
“The AEK Athens will always be the European night I go back to as a fan,” recalled Swanson. “It was a brilliant night and I remember going back to my dad’s pub afterwards. Even though we lost, the place was absolutely bouncing.
“Now that we are in Europe and looking forward to a trip to Greece, that game immediately sprung to mind. It didn’t feel like a defeat and, to this day, was probably the best atmosphere I have experienced at Easter Road.
“We’ve had some great times at Easter Road since I’ve come back – big games in the league – but nights like that are just a little bit different and I’d love to be part of an occasion like that on the pitch – rather than in the stands.”
Before that, however, there is the small matter of finishing the job against Runavik.
The part-timers were utterly dismantled in Edinburgh six days ago, with a Flo Kamberi hat-trick, a Stevie Mallan double and Oli Shaw’s goal ending the tie as a contest after just 93 minutes of football.
Nevertheless, the outing is anything but meaningless for Swanson, who insists he feels like a new summer signing for Hibs this summer following an underwhelming maiden campaign for the Hibees last term.
“The gaffer [Neil Lennon] says I’ve been doing well and I feel fitter than I did at this stage of the season last year,” added the former St Johnstone favourite. “It’s a new season – and I feel like I’ve just signed for the club.”
Echoing Lennon’s ambition to become the first non-Old Firm side to reach a European group stage since Aberdeen in 2007/08, Swanson added: “We didn’t put all that work just to accept failure. You can’t just go along for the ride and I don’t think it will really feel like Europe until we get to the group stage.”