EIGHTEEN Hearts players are preparing for a possible European debut tonight. Most of the Tynecastle senior squad have never played in a UEFA club competition and are keen to feature in the Europa League first qualifying round, first leg, against FC Infonet of Estonia.
The players in question are: Jack Hamilton, Faycal Rherras, Alim Ozturk, Perry Kitchen, Jamie Walker, Juanma Delgado, Arnaud Djoum, Sam Nicholson, Billy King, John Souttar, Don Cowie, Juwon Oshaniwa, Conor Sammon, Jordan McGhee, Robbie Muirhead, Liam Smith, Dario Zanatta and Nikolay Todorov.
All of the above will sample European football for the first time if they take to the field against Infonet at Tynecastle. Head coach Robbie Neilson will select his strongest available starting line-up and substitutes for Hearts’ first competitive outing of the 2016/17 campaign. The squad began pre-season training two weeks ago but are not yet at full match sharpness.
“It’s hard to say we are 100 per cent but I think it is really close,” said Djoum. “Everybody came in good shape from the break because you have to train during the break. Everybody is ready to play this game. For almost everybody it will be the first time playing European football, so it is exciting to do a good job in this competition.
“This will be my first European game, that’s why it’s so exciting to play European football for the first time in my career. I think it’ll be a hard game because we don’t know much about the team we will play, so we’ll have to watch some videos of them. It won’t be easy but we just have to focus on ourselves and play like we did last season. Being at Tynecastle can make a big difference.”
Djoum joined Hearts in September last year and signed an extended contract within three months. He felt he had to seize the chance to play European football. “It’s a club where I fitted in well, that has given me a lot of confidence,” he said. “I know that I have the opportunity to play at the top of the league and to play European football, it is important for a player to play these type of games. I was happy to stay here.”
Since his teens, the Belgian midfielder has dreamed about playing in the Champions League and Europa League. “As a kid I used to watch the Champions League; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester United,” he recalled. “You used to dream about it. Now it’s not the Champions League but the Europa League. It’s a European competition and it’s exciting to say that in my career I’m playing in this kind of game.
“When you are 18 or 19 you dream about it but in the last few years I had some difficult seasons and my belief was not as much to play in these kind of games. So I’m happy that I’m at Hearts and able to play these kind of games.”
Djoum is excited about the prospect of fulfilling a long-held ambition this evening, but he also feels a sense of responsibility to Scottish football. The nation’s UEFA co-efficient could certainly use a boost from clubs sustaining long runs in European tournaments. Hearts, like Aberdeen, must negotiate four two-legged qualifying rounds to reach the coveted Europa League group stage.
“This competition is important for Scottish football as well as Hearts,” said Djoum. “To improve Scottish football and attract players, if Scottish teams are doing well in Europe then the level of the competition will be higher.
“I think teams like Hearts, Aberdeen and Celtic will try to have a good European campaign and try to go as far as possible. For us, it would be a dream to achieve the group stage, but why not? We have to believe we have the capacity to do that as we have a great team and in every game we have to give our best.
“It would be amazing to go that far because you don’t think about it, you only dream about it.
“We could play against really big European teams and that’s just a dream. It would be really great if we could achieve it.”