Alim Ozturk bears a look of satisfaction knowing Hearts’ European place is secured. As Tynecastle captain, he will lead his team into continental competition in just a few weeks’ time. It is precisely the kind of honour he hoped for two years ago when he arrived in Edinburgh and bought into the vision that Hearts’ rebuild could be done at an accelerated pace.
The latest step, and one of the most significant, came in the Highlands on Tuesday night. The 0-0 draw with Inverness Caledonian Thistle was unremarkable in many ways, but the point gained guarantees Hearts at least third place and a spot in the Europa League qualifying rounds. It is an astonishing feat for a club relegated from the Ladbrokes Premiership two years ago this very month.
Ozturk has been a key figure in the rejuvenation, from 40-yard blooters at Easter Road to his daily leadership within the Riccarton dressing room. The Dutch-born Turkish defender has seen his stock rise in Scotland despite being only 23. His ambition seems boundless - exactly the kind of relentless appetite which is driving Hearts forward.
Typically, although five games remain on his club’s fixture list this season, Ozturk is already planning ahead to the 2016/17 campaign. He is confident of further progress and a sustained challenge at the top end of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Anything achieved in the Europa League will be considered a bonus.
“I think we can be up there competing in the top two and three again next season,” he said. “Rangers will be back and we will see if one other club will come up too – maybe Falkirk, maybe Hibs! The league will be harder with Rangers in it but we have enough quality to do it again.
“Some players will go, some new players will come in. That is important. You want to get better and better. We have a lot of guys under contract but it’s good to build and keep players. I don’t know what will happen in the summer, but we are building.”
Strategically putting the blocks in place are head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein. Their forward planning has underpinned the success over the last two years. Now they must confront the challenge of reinforcing their squad for Europe, with only a small window in which to work.
Hearts are due to play the first leg of the Europa League first qualifying round on June 30, with the second leg on July 7. The only way they can bypass the first qualifying round and enter the second is if they finish second in the Premiership and Celtic win both the league and Scottish Cup. Such a multiple combination is unlikely at best.
The priority in terms of recruitment is a new striker, so offering European football as a carrot should help. “Having European football will make it easier for us to attract players. If anyone asks me, then it is a big plus point,” said Ozturk. “It will help bring players in and I hope it will help take Hearts to the next level. We have to find the right players and that is really difficult – but I think they will do a good job.”
Hearts are expected, but not guaranteed, to be seeded in the draw for the first qualifying round. Whatever happens, they should expect a journey into the footballing wilderness. Amongst the potential destinations are countries like Andorra, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands and Armenia. Ozturk, to put it bluntly, couldn’t care less where he ends up.
“You have to be lucky with the draws in Europe, so we will see what happens. I don’t care where we have to travel to. I just want to play in Europe. If we have to go to Romania or anywhere else, I don’t care. It will just be nice to play in Europe.
“Getting to Europe is great for the club and we are delighted with that. We knew we had a good team and yes, we said the aim was top-six. But we knew that we could push even more. We did that and I think we are still doing that. We have a good squad, we have talented young players and we will see how it goes.”
The captain will hold off booking his summer holiday just in case the above scenario transpires whereby Hearts avoid the first Europa League qualifier. “Finishing second could give us another week off and that is your mind as a group. Extra holidays are always good,” he smiled. “I haven’t booked anything yet and I will wait to see what happens. It will be a last-minute thing. You never know in football. I won’t be booking any holidays at the moment.”
However, Aberdeen remain eight points better off and are firm favourites to secure second place in the league. “We are disappointed drawing at Inverness because we wanted to keep putting pressure on Aberdeen and this was a chance for us to do that,” continued Ozturk. “We wanted to bring the gap to six points but it was a tough match. The gap is eight points and it will be hard now. We are disappointed but we will keep fighting.”