The Boot Room: The Game That Was

Screeching to a halt, the plane carrying the Hibs players and staff slid along the tarmac of Edinburgh Airport.

Well on its way to reaching the required speed to take-off, an announcement came through the tannoy system - the first-leg of their UEFA Cup jaunt against AEK Athens had been postponed. It was the 12th of September 2001 - only a day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

Already delayed before take-off, the plane had been idling away on the runway awaiting the final call from the UEFA headquarters. Traffic kept building up behind the plane, forcing a decision on behalf of the pilot. They’d take their chances and go for it. Surely, at this stage, it was too late to call it off? It wasn’t.

Usually a stoic presence of leadership, a head for business and a body for sin, Franck Sauzée had turned a whiter shade of eggshell, his knuckles making the full ghostly transformation from flesh coloured to fresh white paint. This was before take-off. Upon hearing the immense squeal of rubber as all of those aboard’s bodies were jolted by the drag of the plane’s braking system, the players were inclined to look to their captain for clarification about what on earth just happened. There was no answer from the Frenchman.

Then came that reassuring voice of the pilot, letting everybody on board know what had happened. What should have been the most hair-raising part of their trip unfortunately wasn’t. Little did they know what would happen when the Athens ultras located their bus upon arrival the following week. That is still a bit away in Hibs’ Greek odyssey though, a moment that would take place in in the land of Plato, souvlaki and ouzo - exactly where a giant chartered Boeing 747 full of Hibs fans was already on its way to, having taken off an hour earlier than the team.

Soaring approximately above the boot of Italy at the time of the news breaking, unbeknownst to those passengers that no football would be at the other end of it, spirits were high - and being consumed with great thirst - as the club’s supporters were looking forward to their first European outing in almost a decade, after a tough-to-take away goal ruling sent them home against Belgium’s Anderlecht in the 1992/93 competition.

Upon arrival, the nearly 4000 fans made the most of their time in Athens. Sightseeing, learning about the ancient capital and sinking pints. The grim reality for many was that the rescheduled match would be an impossibility. It wasn’t a cheap trip and many fans had used up valuable days of their allotted annual holidays. It was the following week, on Thursday the 20th of September, that just over half of the initial brigade of Hibs fans returned to Athens. This time the fixture would go ahead.

Arriving in the balmy climate, Alex McLeish and Craig Brewster were immediately grabbed for an interview at the airport. A buzz enveloped the players that felt a far cry from their weekly domestic ties. Brewster delivered the interview in Greek, thanks to his time spent at Ionikos, and chairman at the time Malcolm McPherson fondly recalls being whisked away in a stretched limo with his own team of motorcycle outriders. This sense of significance in the sun was a feeling everybody could get used to.

Many aspects of Greek footballing culture struck the team, staff and fans as different upon this first impression. That said, AEK Athens are a club not dissimilar to Hibernian. They’re from a working-class portside part of the capital city. They’re a club founded by refugees from Constantinople looking for community, as Hibs were founded by a group of Catholics looking for the same thing.

One of the main distinctions is fan culture. Where Scotland has casual culture, European football has ultra culture. Well-organised and fanatical fan groups choreograph large displays functioning as both a tribute to their club and as a cerebral technique of intimidation. What came as a surprise to the Hibs players, who had just boarded their bus and taken off for the hotel, was that these displays they’d heard stories about didn’t begin and end in the stadium.

Once the AEK ultras had identified the team bus, they soared alongside it on their scooters, zig-zagging across the path of the driver making for a stop-start ride, whilst others pulled in tight to its side, banging on the exterior and waving flags, scarves and anything else that could swing. The match had already begun.

Although the players had already seen the trailer, it would be remiss to think this little display of zippy scooters faithfully represented the main event. What was waiting for them in the cauldron was pure fanaticism, unlike anything witnessed in Scotland or the United Kingdom. Supporters scaled the fences that were designed to keep them enclosed, burning American flags in protest to 9/11, all with a deeply provocative undertone whereby the club became guilty by association of being, in the eyes of AEK fans, of British origins and therefore allies of the US.

Like the Athens fans, the travelling support was cooped up in a cage that was purportedly designed for their safety but did little to stop the coins and bolts being hurled their way. It was menacing, but this was a team who were willing to scrap and a set of fans willing to jump and sing. Despite their will for battle, a questionable penalty decision gave AEK an opportunity to take the lead in the second half, which they did from the foot of the decisive and in-form Tsartas, before a headed effort from Nikolaidis 10 minutes later sealed the deal.

Heading into the second leg with a two-goal deficit meant that the odds were firmly stacked in the Greeks favour. Despite what seemed like an insurmountable challenge, staff and players recalled McLeish’s conviction when he, a man of few words, said on the way home - “We can beat this team.” His confidence, as it had domestically, rubbed off on his side.

Approaching Easter Road that night, the stand and spotlights were silhouetted against the darkness of Edinburgh’s sky in the evening. A glow emanated from inside with a kinetic palpability for those approaching, soundtracked by a strange audible dissonance, where nerves and excitement coalesced into random patches of quietness and chanting. Something was happening.

Inside the ground and under the spotlights of Easter Road, there was an atmosphere incomparable to anything else - at least since the times when other European giants like Real Madrid or Sporting graced the field. On the night, fans were buoyed by the return of skipper Sauzée, guardian of the goal in his sweeper role, offering confidence to all the men before him. Up top, Paco Luna looked the part. Pure European elegance to rival any of the AEK squad, bestowing upon Hibs their own sense of continental cool.

This was a different match altogether. AEK did not have their flag-burning fans and the Hibees had their bounce. Taking the lead just minutes into the second half from a Luna header, where the striker was in the right place at the right time to positively alter the trajectory of an Ian Murray effort, the Spaniard’s goal sent a tide of jubilation throughout the crowd, diminishing much of the trepidation. Hibs continued on the offensive.

Exactly 30-minutes later, the Jerez-born striker got his foot on the end of a scrappy goalmouth scramble as a result of a Hibs set-piece, sending the side two goals up on the night with eight minutes left on the clock. It ended level pegging going into extra-time after Luna missed a painful opportunity to net a hat-trick in an effort that had every fan in the stadium jump up from their seat to try and header it for him. At that moment, time simultaneously stood still and then fell to pieces.

An early goal from Tsartas in extra-time before he doubled his tally with an unlikely goal straight from a corner all but sealed the deal. Where the ground had been a tsunami of noise twenty minutes earlier, it was now awash with painful silence. A truly memorable David Zitelli strike from distance was little consolation, albeit offering a brief flicker of hope for the remaining minutes. Hibs were out. The journey was over.

Once the initial pain of defeat subsided, fans began to look back on that night as an ephemeral moment of Hibernian footballing history. We had Le God, a mixture of European and homegrown talent. The baggy Le Coq Sportif kits, the old East stand. Those in attendance remember who they were there with, but also those who could not make it.

More than that, it is remembered fondly as a transitional period in football when players still wore black boots, when television coverage was still a part of traditional media and pundit’s opinions superseded any real in-depth analysis. It was real football, a romantic night forever etched into the hearts of Hibs fans, a memory that even a loss has done little to spoil.