From the glamour of Liverpool, Luis Suarez and Anfield in their last European outing in August 2012, Hearts will return to the continental stage next week against an unheralded Estonian side who only formed 14 years ago, have never previously played in Europe and whose home ground holds around 500 people.
The steadily-improving FC Infonet Tallinn are the opposition as Hearts begin what they hope will be a glorious journey to the Europa League group stage for the first time in 12 years.
To do that, they will have to overcome four teams, with their route having been made notably clearer by yesterday’s first and second qualifying round draws in Nyon. If they overcome the Estonian novices, Robbie Neilson’s will then have to get past either Birkirkara or a familiar foe in Siroki Brijeg, whom they defeated 3-0 in a Champions League qualifier ten years ago. Hearts’ clash with the Maltese or the Bosnians will take place next month. The focus for now, however, is very much on next Thursday’s campaign-opening match at home to Infonet, the most upwardly-mobile team in Estonia. Formed in 2002, they now find themselves just a point off the top of the Meistriliiga after 17 games. On the back of a six-game winning streak in the league, hopes of a first top-flight title in their short history are growing.
“This is only our fourth year in the top league,” technical director Dmitri Skiperski told the Evening News. “In the first year we were sixth, in the second year we were fifth and last year we were fourth, so we have made one step every year. At the moment, we are second and hoping to win the title. We will fight to be champions. We have recruited good players, many who played for the national team. That is why we have done so well.”
Tynecastle will be the venue as the Estonian upstarts get a first taste of European football. Skiperski admits he would have preferred for his team’s maiden continental voyage to have kept them closer to home.
“We are not too happy with the draw because we didn’t really want a British team,” he said. “We could have had a team from Norway, Denmark or Latvia and that would have suited us better in terms of travel. The players will look forward to going to Edinburgh, though.
“For a small Estonian club like ourselves, Hearts are a very big club from a traditionally strong league in Scotland. We know they came third in the league, just behind Celtic and Aberdeen. We are playing for the first time in the Europa League, so I really don’t know what our expectations should be against Hearts. It will be very hard but we will fight for a good result.”
Hearts will hope to be in full control of the tie by the time of the return leg in Tallinn on July 7. That match is set to take place in Estonia’s 10,000-capacity national stadium as their own humble abode, Lasnamae KJH Stadium, is not fit to stage such a high-profile encounter.
Paul Ritchie, who played the last time Hearts visited Estonia 18 years ago, believes the Jambos will benefit from playing in the more salubrious Le Coq Arena, which was built in 2001. Ritchie and his colleagues played a Cup Winners Cup match in 1998 against the now-defunct FC Lantana at the Kadriorg Stadium, Le Coq Arena’s decrepit predecessor as Estonia’s national stadium. Hearts, who had claimed the Scottish Cup three months previously, won 1-0 in Tallinn courtesy of a Lee Makel goal before finishing the tie with a 5-0 victory at Tynecastle.
“The ground we played at out there, which was also the national stadium at the time, was very basic, like a junior ground,” the former Hearts defender, who also went to Tallinn with Scotland, recalled. “It wasn’t an updated stadium – it was very minimal with very few seats. I don’t even think it had floodlights so we had to play in the afternoon and there was hardly anybody there. It’s very difficult to play in an environment like that so it will be beneficial to Hearts that they’re playing at the new stadium.
“The Hearts fans that go will have a fantastic time because Tallinn’s a beautiful place, a really nice place to go. It’ll be a safe environment for them and they’ll have a fantastic time there. From a footballing perspective, Hearts will be really pleased with the draw but they’ve got to be careful because these teams from so-called smaller nations are getting stronger all the time. They’ll be adequate and competitive. On the whole, though, Robbie’s got to be happy with the draw.”