Callum Paterson suffered heat exhaustion, sickness and general distress in the searing Maltese heat last week. Tonight offers the chance to reverse fortunes on Birkirkara. Hearts aim to make Tynecastle hot, hostile and uncomfortable for their Mediterranean guests.
A goalless draw at the Hibernians Stadium last Thursday leaves the Edinburgh club confident of progress to the Europa League third qualifying round. It was a result hard-earned as players wilted in 27 degree heat combined with 77 per cent humidity.
Paterson was seen vomiting at full-time as his body overheated. Sickness after punishing pre-season training sessions is relatively common for footballers, but this was something entirely new. Yet, he insists pushing himself to his physical limit was worth it. This is Hearts in Europe, after all.
Any manner of victory this evening would secure a tie against the Russian club FK Krasnodar. To do so, Hearts want to unsettle Birkirkara as much as possible and use what should be a boisterous home crowd to their advantage.
“The heat over there was ridiculous but, if you want to play in Europe, you’re going to play in hot countries,” said Paterson. “We aren’t used to it but you have to get used to it quickly and perform in those conditions. It was a hot day and it was hard going but we got a result and didn’t concede a goal.
“I’ve come off the pitch sick during pre-season but never from the heat. It was really hot, we dealt with it well and we’re now sitting in a good position. We didn’t want to go there and concede like we did against Infonet at home. That put us in a difficult position for the second leg because, if they scored first, they could go through.
“I didn’t even go into the dressing room at the end. It was too hot. I wasn’t used to it and my body was maybe a bit shocked by the heat. We stood outside for half an hour or something, then had a shower. We went right back outside because it was so hot in there. I recovered outside, got the plane home and then I was fine for training the next day.
“We all did well to get through it and now we’ve got them here. It wasn’t a bad atmosphere at the first leg due to the fans who travelled with us, and the Birkirkara supporters were noisy as well despite it being a small stadium. Now they’re coming to Tynecastle, which is a fortress. Hopefully we can make it as intimidating for them as possible.”
Hearts’ approach is to seize the initiative in the tie early on. “The aim is to score – score first and don’t concede at all,” stated Paterson. “We came back with a 0-0 so we didn’t concede over there. We also didn’t score over there, which is a factor. If we score here and keep the door shut at the back, then we’ll go through.
“Birkirkara were stuffy and defensive, but they did their job well. They held us to a 0-0 draw, which is great for them. It’s not too bad for us. We take that result into Thursday and try to get a goal. It’s still hot during the day here right now but later at night it will be a bit cooler. We’ve got another week of pre-season training under our belts and we want to use that to our advantage.”
Enthusiasm is a never a commodity Paterson lacks. His drive and desire have been a feature of Hearts matches since he first broke into the senior side four years ago. European football merely enhances his passion for the cause.
He headed his first goal in continental competition two weeks ago in Tallinn – “that was a great feeling” – and is revelling in a recent change of position from right-back to right midfield. “It’s just a change of scenery for myself,” said the 21-year-old, who has played midfield many times in the past.
“The gaffer is trying something different and it’s kind of working. It’s going to take me a while to get used to it. Once I’ve adjusted to it, then it will be another string to my bow. I’ve played wide right before and I enjoy it there.
“I’ve got a bit more freedom, there’s less defensive work, but I still have to track back. I get more opportunities to attack, which I like doing. I’ve to come in at the back post when crosses arrive and that’s a massive thing for us. We work on crosses all the time so I’m keen to take the opportunity there to show what I can do.”
For all the belief, there is also justifiable caution ahead of tonight’s kick-off. An away goal would totally change the complexion of the tie, and Birkirkara are experts at killing a game. Paterson pointed out the extent of Hearts’ endeavours to reach this point, adding that they have no intention of suffering an earlier-than-expected exit.
“Anything can happen,” he admitted. “West Ham lost to Birkirkara in Malta last year, Celtic didn’t do too well in Gibraltar last week. It can happen to anyone, even the biggest teams. We’ve got to look after this game first, hopefully get through, and then we can look to the next round.
“We’ve worked hard to get to this stage and now we’re reaping the rewards. We went through the turmoil of administration, going down, coming back up and then we battled hard last year to finish third and secure our place in Europe.
“It’s great to have that reward and we want to hold on to it with both hands. It’s a massive achievement for anybody to play even one game in the Europa League. We’ll have played four after tonight, then hopefully another two and possibly another two after that.”