VLADIMIR ROMANOV boarded the Hearts team coach in Anfield’s car park late last night to personally thank those responsible for a stirring performance which reverberated across Europe long into the early hours.
He shook players’ hands before a particularly emotional embrace with manager John McGlynn at the front of the bus. For Romanov and thousands of others, their night on Merseyside will never be forgotten.
The Russian entrepreneur certainly felt the disappointment of a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Liverpool which sees the Merseysiders progress to the Europa League groups.
Hearts, though, gave them an almighty fright in their own surroundings. A well organised, brave, measured display saw the visitors go 1-0 ahead on the night through David Templeton with just four minutes remaining, only to concede an equaliser four minutes later to Luis Suarez.
For the second successive year, the Edinburgh club exit the Europa League at the play-off stage to English opposition. They have now been to White Hart Lane and Anfield in the last 12 months and not lost. Last night was supposed to be a straightforward task for Liverpool, 1-0 ahead from the first leg. It proved to be anything but.
Hearts manager John McGlynn had his team motivated without being over-zealous. His players were focused and determined. They had licence to play and attack provided everyone fulfilled their defensive duties. Which they did. Even though Liverpool restored iconic figures like Suarez and Steven Gerrard to their team from the first leg, Hearts simply rose to the challenge with an 18-man squad containing 12 Riccarton youth academy graduates.
Romanov’s pride was echoed by McGlynn in the manager’s post-match dressing-room address. “I told them their performance was incredible and I’m very, very proud of every single player,” McGlynn told the Evening News. “They played with passion, they played with pride and they gave their fans something worth singing and chanting about all through the game.
“Over the two legs, we nearly matched Liverpool in every department. To score at Anfield and go in front with not long to go, it’s just a bit disappointing that we ended up losing a goal and going out of the tie. Over the course of the two games, I think we’ve acquitted ourselves remarkably well against a team that has spent a lot of money. They have so many international players but we matched them.
“We were actually on the attack when we lost the goal. We lost the ball in a bad area and then we had a slip in defence which didn’t help us. We committed a lot of bodies forward and were caught on the counter-attack. Maybe we should just have sat in and seen out the last few minutes, then gone into extra-time and taken our chances. The match could’ve gone to penalties and maybe we could’ve gone through that way. It’s all ifs and buts.
“I can’t criticise the players in any way whatsoever. I’d never do that. They have been fantastic over the two legs and I’m just hoping we can take belief from this and use it in the SPL campaign.”
McGlynn’s Anfield counterpart, Brendan Rodgers, was an extremely relieved man. “We achieved our objective, which was to get through,” he said. “These two games were never going to be easy but I thought our attitude and spirit was tremendous. We showed spirit when we went behind. Gerrard ran 40 or 50 yards to win possession and set up the attack for our goal. But we did give possession away too much. We were wasteful and could’ve put game to bed earlier.
“From where I was, I felt it was only a matter of time till we got the goal. We have to keep faith because teams come here and it’s a big motivation for them to play. We conceded first but the reaction was very good. I’m pleased we haven’t lost the game, that’s important for our mentality. We’re into the group stages, which is great.”
With Romanov watching from the directors’ box, Hearts were clearly intent on attacking from kick-off. Callum Paterson tried a speculative effort on five minutes which dropped just wide of goal. The bold approach, naturally, left them susceptible to a counter-attack. Marius Zaliukas, having overcome a leg injury to play, cleared Suarez’s header virtually off the goal line before Reina collected a rather tame effort from Mehdi Taouil.
Play fluctuated from end-to-end and Hearts appealed vehemently for a penalty after 26 minutes. Paterson darted in front of Jamie Carragher to collect John Sutton’s lay-off and the 17-year-old appeared to be impeded, albeit accidentally, by the Englishman. The referee didn’t agree and merely gestured for Paterson to get himself up off the ground.
Then it was Liverpool’s turn to attack again. Jamie MacDonald held Adam Morgan’s long-range drive at the second attempt and then blocked virtually at the feet of Gerrard to prevent a certain goal after the midfielder jinked his way into the penalty area. Morgan also had an effort disallowed, and Hearts were grateful to reach the interval still in contention.
The hosts started the second half with more aggression and urgency in their play and ought to have opened the scoring when Suarez rounded MacDonald on 64 minutes. The Uruguayan sprinted on to Jordan Henderson’s sliding through ball and went past the goalkeeper but was closed down by Ryan McGowan, who anticipated the danger extremely well. Suarez’s shot from the most acute angle deflected off McGowan onto the post and wide.
Liverpool were dominating and creating openings, helped by Arvydas Novikovas dithering on the ball close to goal on a few occasions. Suarez had another attempt, Gerrard shot wide, McGlynn reacted by replacing the tiring Sutton with Andy Driver and moving Paterson to centre forward. Then came Dale Carrick’s introduction in place of Novikovas, which notably galvanised the visitors.
On 84 minutes they forced an unexpected goal. Templeton retrieved a clearance around 25 yards out in the inside-left channel. He manoeuvred himself inside past Liverpool substitutes Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini and dispatched a powerful drive at Reina. The ball swerved, causing the Spaniard to fumble and let it squirm from his grasp. As it trundled over the goal line, the Hearts supporters exploded into fits of joy. A couple of Jambos even spilled on to the pitch, unable to contain their delirium, before being pounced upon by stewards.
Extra-time looked a certainty. Yet Hearts’ ecstasy was to last all of four minutes. Andy Webster slipped trying to intercept Gerrard’s pass to Suarez just inside the visitors’ half. The Uruguayan set off on a run past Zaliukas and, from a seemingly impossible angle, sent the ball through MacDonald’s legs and into the net with his left foot. Anfield erupted with relief, a clear indication of the panic Hearts had caused amongst the natives just moments earlier. McGlynn’s disgust on the touchline was difficult to disguise.
Suarez’s brilliance had ultimately eliminated Hearts from the Europa League. They have only pride as reward for an outstanding effort over 180 minutes against a club that can count itself amongst the kings of European football.
The Hearts fans belted songs out into the night sky above Anfield long after the final whistle. That sky will host a blue moon tomorrow, which doesn’t happen too often. Neither do evenings like last night.