Kenny Hibbitt believes Wolves can celebrate their return to Europe by winning the Europa League – and finish in the top six.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side start the club’s first European campaign for 39 years in the second qualifying round by playing the winners of Crusaders and Faroe Islanders B36 Torshavn, who face off on July 11 and 18.
Hibbitt is delighted to see his beloved Wolves back on the continental stage after a near four-decade absence. The double League Cup winner is one of only three players with Derek Parkin and John Richards who have figured in all four of the club’s UEFA Cup campaigns, the highlight being reaching the final in 1971-72.
And, asked if he can see Wolves winning a major honour in the next few years, the 68-year-old believes the team can win their first European trophy.
“There’s no reason why we can’t win something. If we take the Europa League seriously, we could win that, because I think we’re good enough,” said Hibbitt. “It’s lovely to see us back in Europe. It’s where we belong. We have waited a long time for this and the fans have been so patient over the years. Now they’re seeing something that they have wanted to see for such a long time.
“I still think we’re good enough to get a top-six position. It depends on how seriously he wants to take the League Cup and the FA Cup, but we had a great run in the FA Cup last year.”
The Molineux legend’s belief is fuelled by the experience some Wolves players have of playing in Europe. Midfielder Joao Moutinho won the Europa League with Porto in 2011 and reached the final with Sporting Lisbon in 2005, while goalkeeper Rui Patricio has played over 90 club games in European competition. Ruben Neves played in the Champions League at 17.
“Back in our day, we were all British players. Nowadays, we have international players who have played in this competition and done well in Europe,” said Hibbitt. “The players who have not played in Europe will benefit from the others’ experience and these players are not kids. They (Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota) might 21, 22, 23 but they’re experienced, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Hibbitt believes Wolves’ return to Europe is long overdue. He played in the club’s last game in the UEFA Cup, when they beat PSV Eindhoven 1-0 in October 1980 but went out 3-2 on aggregate in the first round after losing 3-1 in Holland, a game he missed through injury.
“It’s about time, isn’t it? The memories start flooding back when you start talking about Wolves being back in Europe,” recalled the popular former midfielder. “We had a fantastic period to get to the UEFA Cup final in 1971-72 against Tottenham and then we had three more seasons of European competition after that up to 1980-81, when we lost to PSV Eindhoven.
“I thought that was hard on us because I thought we were the better side over the two legs. I missed the first leg because I’d been out with a thigh injury which had kept me out virtually all of the season up to then. John Barnwell brought me back for the home leg and I could have had a hat-trick that night, and probably should have done.
“If I’d have had a couple of games before that or played in the first leg, I might have put those chances away. We dominated the game and we were the better side, so it was disappointing to go out.
“They were a good side but they weren’t as good as us. Their goalkeeper played exceptionally well and it wasn’t to be. We couldn’t emulate what we did in 1971-72.”
Hibbitt feels the Europa League hasn’t got the same sparkle as its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, because of the importance of the Champions League and Premier League. But he reckons it will be a fantastic adventure and experience for the supporters.
“The UEFA Cup was a top competition to play in, just behind the European Cup. Now it’s the Champions League and the Premier League, and the Europa League has been somewhat devalued and hasn’t got the glamour it used to have,” he said.
“But it’s still a chance for the fans to support their team around Europe. We will see how seriously they take it. I hope they do.
“They’re a fantastic group of fans, always have been. There was excitement all the way through in the FA Cup until the disappointment in the semi-final. That’s what fans want – they want to be involved in everything and they crave success. Now they’re seeing a club we’re all excited about for the future.”