Paola club misses out on potential €3 million windfall
Hibernians FC were still coming to terms to what might have been on Friday after their heart-breaking elimination from the UEFA Conference League to Latvian side FC Riga at the Centenary Stadium.
The Paolites, who were down to ten men following the dismissal of Jake Grech, were only a couple of minutes away from clinching an historical berth in the play-off of UEFA’s newly-launched competition they were holding a 2-1 aggregate lead over their Latvian opponents with just less than two minutes to play.
But then their dreams were shattered when FC Riga netted a second goal in the 96th minute that handed them a 2-1 win in regular time but more importantly sent the tie into extra-time much to the dismay of the Paolites fans.
FC Riga made their numerical advantage count as in extra-time they managed to add two more goals to set up a comfortable-looking play-off round tie against Gibraltar side Lincoln Imps.
However, the Paolites were left seething by the controversial decisions made by Irish referee Rob Hennessy which culminated in a bizarre penalty awarding in the first-minute of the game, erroneously annulling Jurgen Degabriele’s second goal for an inexistent offside and inexplicably awarded seven minutes of extra-time that in the end saw FC Riga clinch their second goal.
It is understood that had Hibernians knocked out FC Riga and eliminated Lincoln Imp in the play-off round they would not only become the first Maltese team to reach the group stages of a UEFA competition but also pocket €3 million for reaching that phase.
Hibernians captain Andrei Agius said it’s difficult to find words to describe their emotions following the events of Thursday night.
“We gave everything we had but it was not enough,” the veteran defender said.
“We know how much effort the team has put through in all our matches in the European competitions this year against Flora Tallinn, Folgore and FC Riga and we know that reaching the group stages of the Conference League was something that we could have managed but unfortunately things didn’t work out well for us and it hurts.”
Agius is one of the most experienced players in Maltese football and said that throughout his career he had never met a referee line-up that had taken so many wrong decisions consistently throughout a match.
“I understand that referees are human and are subject to making mistakes, but in almost 500 matches I played I have never had officials who took so many wrong decisions consistently throughout a game. The number of wrong decisions was unbelievable and only going against us.
“There was no communication with the referee from any of our players, not even our skipper Bjorn Kristensen. It was unbelievable.”
“Thursday’s match has shown on how important to have Video Assistant Referee technology at this level of UEFA competitions where the margin of human error is much greater than in higher-level competitions and more mistakes are committed by match officials.
“Our club was significantly damaged by the poor referee decisions and this should not happen at this level. Technology would ensure such instances do not happen.”
Agius feels that the turning point of the match was the dismissal of Jake Grech with only three minutes to go.
“Jake’s dismissal was surely a major turning point,” Agius said.
“After going behind we had managed to put the match where we wanted it to be with Jurgen Degabriele’s equaliser and we looked to be controlling our opponents. But then with a man less and heading into extra-time it was always going to be difficult.
“In the first half of extra-time we survived a few scares but physically we were struggling with a player less and then conceding a goal in stoppage time killed us and from then it was game over.”
Despite the heartache of their elimination, Agius believes that Hibs’ experience was an eye-opener for Maltese clubs that the UEFA Conference League provided an excellent opportunity for them to reach uncharted territory with good recruitment and preparation.
“I think that the UEFA Conference League is an interesting competition for the Maltese football movement,” the Hibs defender said.
“We showed that it’s possible for Maltese clubs to reach the group stages of the competition. But that can only be achieved if they are more professional with a good recruitment programme and better pre-season preparation.
“This is an opportunity that Maltese clubs should make the most of.”