Robbie Neilson admitted Hearts are devastated by their shock Europa League loss to Birkirkara but urged his players to learn from the disappointment.
The Maltese club won 2-1 at Tynecastle last night for a 2-1 aggregate scoreline to reach the tournament’s third qualifying round. It is the first time in history a team from their league has gone that far in any European competition.
Neilson criticised Hearts’ defending as Christian Bubalovic and Edward Herrera scored to put Birkirkara through. The head coach was also frustrated to see Prince Buaben’s first-half penalty saved with the score at 0-0. He stressed his young side must return stronger and ensure they qualify for the Europa League again next year.
“These games are difficult. If we’d scored the penalty it’s a different game but we have to learn from it,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who hadn’t played any European football before. We have kids who are still growing and they’re growing with the club. We need to make sure we put this in perspective.
“Yes, we’re devastated about it now but we had a full year’s work to get here. We’re upset that we’ve lost but now the work begins to get us back here next year. I told the players in the dressing room that they have to learn from it, that’s it.
“A lot of our young guys have now played four games in Europe in some tough environments. We’re devastated for the club, players and fans, but we have to go from here and we have to keep building.
“I actually thought we passed the ball well. We created a lot of chances, got the penalty, hit the bar twice. We just couldn’t get a goal and then we were done by the sucker-punch.
“That’s European football. We’re a young group of players and a young group of coaches. We can’t let teams score goals like that against us. That’s what cost us.
“The turning point was giving up the first goal. It was a poor one to lose. When you play in Europe, you can’t give up away goals. You need to make the other team work really hard for it. We gave up a cheap goal and paid the ultimate price.”
Drazen Besek, the Birkirkara coach, delivered a rather scathing assessment of Hearts’ tactics. He admitted his team were lucky to win but not surprised by the final result.
“We were lucky. We know who we were playing against,” said Besek. “I think good tactics helped and we got the maximum from our players. It is a big success but I must say we expected it. My team is not surprised with this success.
“People say this is the biggest result ever for a team from Malta. We spoke about how we wanted to play and my players did what we discussed.
“The Hearts team played very simply and we read how they played. The played with long balls. When we scored, we put one more defender on the pitch and they only wanted to play with long balls. We like this. We have players who can answer this, it is very simple.”