EXCITEMENT is building at Riccarton ahead of Hearts’ first Europa League qualifying tie against Infonet Tallinn. Robbie Neilson remains unflustered. His European debut as a manager is merely hours away, yet he strolls into the astrodome at his club’s training ground looking relaxed, bearing a smile and with a whistle dangling from his neck.
He has just finished training with the group of players who will shoulder Hearts’ Europa League hopes, starting tomorrow night against the Estonians. Neilson is only two years into his managerial career. He has strode forward at breakneck speed and been a key figure in the rebuilding of Hearts since administration ended. Tomorrow is new ground, unchartered territory, and he is ready.
There is excitement within the 36-year-old but it is very much under control. He is eager to test himself against the experienced Infonet head coach Aleksandr Pushtov, a 52-year-old former Estonian international defender. Neilson acknowledges he and Hearts are entering the unknown somewhat, despite their best attempts to gather information on Infonet. That’s actually part of the thrill.
“The players are looking forward to it. It’s something different – a different type of football, different players to look at, trying to figure out what we think they will do. It’s a wee bit fresh and it’s exciting,” states Neilson, enthusiastically. “We couldn’t see Infonet play live because they’ve had a break but we’ve seen games on Wyscout, on video, and we got a report from a guy I know in Estonia.
“We know quite a bit about them but, like anything in Europe, you’re kind of going into the unknown a bit. They can change formation a lot and change styles. It’s going to be a tough night for us. Infonet are quite dominant in their league. They’ve spent some money in the last couple of years and brought in some current internationals and some ex-internationals. They’re a very experienced team. They know how to win football matches.
“In Europe, you’re coaching against experienced coaches from abroad and different styles of football. It’s great. It gives you great experience. You watch them on video and you speak to different people about them. For all of us, this is a great learning curve.”
Adrenalin can easily take over when everything is new and intriguing, so Neilson’s appeal for players to remain composed is worth heeding. The first round, first leg of Europa League qualifying is intended as the start of European journey. The return leg in Tallinn awaits next Wednesday.
“I think the key thing is not to get carried away with it,” he continues. “Treat it as a normal game, don’t get caught up in all the hype round about it. This is a game we need to win so we must make sure we’re disciplined and do the right things.
“It’s important to get a win so we have something to go to Estonia with. We need to make sure we don’t get overawed by the occasion. For a lot of our players, it’s their first time in Europe. It’s important we see it as a normal game.
“Ideally, if you ask anybody, they would rather play the second leg at home. That way you can go away first and see what you need to do in the second leg. The way things have happened, UEFA decided to switch the games so we just need to deal with it. It means we have to perform in the home leg to take something away with us.”
There is a more settled look to the Hearts squad these days after much surgery during the last two seasons. Players like Perry Kitchen, John Souttar and Arnaud Djoum were signed as long-term assets rather than short-term fixes. Numerous others have come and gone whilst Neilson was guiding the Edinburgh club out of the Championship and back into the European arena. Those in the dressing-room just down the corridor from this astrodome are part of a potentially prosperous future.
“There hasn’t been a huge turnaround of players this year,” explains Neilson. “Over the last couple of years, we got relegated and we changed a lot. Then we got promoted and we changed a lot again. The squad we have now is pretty strong and consistent. There isn’t a lot of altering needing done.
“It’s been a huge turnaround here over the last two years. We’ve won the Championship and then qualified for Europe. It’s great for the fans. I know as a player going abroad for European games was phenomenal. You speak to fans out there and it’s one of the highlights of the season for them. They backed us when we went to Alloa, Queen of the South and Livingston. Now they’re getting the chance to go abroad and back us as well. Hopefully they will see a good game.”
Indeed, Kitchen is likely to be involved at some stage tomorrow despite only arriving back in Scotland this morning from the Copa America. He didn’t play for the USA but should get some much-needed game time for Hearts. “He’ll definitely be part of it. Whether he starts or not I don’t know, but he’ll definitely be on the bench,” says Neilson.
“He’s trained right through and he’s had a good camp [with the USA]. It’s been a short close-season for our players. They were off for four weeks and came back two weeks ago. They kept themselves in good condition. That means that, on the first day, the ball comes out and they’ve got something to focus on.
“Sometimes pre-season can drag on and on. You’re waiting on that first competitive game but ours has come early. If we can progress in Europe, it sets us up well for the start of the league season. You see Aberdeen last year having a great start to the league because they had competitive [European] games at the start of the summer.”
Hearts now have the same luxury and will hope to carry any European momentum into their Scottish Premiership campaign. Neither Neilson nor his players can afford to look that far ahead just now, though.