Arnaud Djoum is happily surprised upon being informed, while discussing the probability of European football next season, that Hearts drew with Liverpool at Anfield during their last venture into continental competition.
“Really?” he smiles, almost disbelievingly. “Phew, it would be a dream to go to this kind of stadium with a lot of tradition. I hope something like that can happen next season.”
Djoum is closing in on his first taste of European football. He got close with Roda JC in the Netherlands, but there was no cigar. Last season he was a fringe man when Lech Poznan won the Ekstraklasa and he had already decided that his future lay elsewhere by the time the Polish champions contested the Champions League qualifiers and Europa League group stage earlier this term. With Hearts 11 points clear of Ross County in the battle for third place in the Scottish Premiership, he senses a big chance to break his continental duck.
“I have been very close a few times, so hopefully I can finally play in Europe with Hearts,” said the Belgian midfielder. “We have the quality to do it. I didn’t really think about qualifying for Europe at Hearts to start with, because I didn’t expect we would be playing to qualify for Europe next season.
“Now, I see that’s really possible. That’s why I’m more happy to have the chance for the first time in my career to play in these kinds of games.”
Before joining Hearts in September, Djoum watched his old Lech Poznan team-mates lose out to Basel in a Champions League qualifier. They dropped into the Europa League, where Fiorentina were among their opponents. Even when Poznan were on their way to winning the title last season, though, Djoum knew it was unlikely to provide him with a pathway into Europe. The Belgian made just three appearances for the Polish side in the second half of last season and sensed he had no long-term future there. After emerging as one of Hearts’ key players this season, the 26-year-old can certainly claim to have played his part if they are back in Europe next term.
“In Poland, I was thinking that I wasn’t playing a lot and I wanted to move to play football,” he said. “Even if you’re in Europe, you don’t want to stay if you know you’re going to be on the bench. For a footballer it’s important to play games and show yourself. I feel part of it at Hearts. If we get to Europe, it would be good to know I did something to help get us there. It’s important that you feel important to the team. I have that feeling at Hearts but I didn’t have it in Poznan.”
Robbie Neilson is excited by the prospect of Hearts ending a three-season absence from European competition. However, the head coach admits it would cause logistical difficulties in terms of planning pre-season schedules, with the possibility of his side being involved in competitive matches before Euro 2016 has even come to an end.
“We don’t want to get carried away because we’re still not over the line yet, but it would be great for the club and fans if we could get to Europe,” he said. “Fans want trips away and hopefully we can give them that. The qualifiers are always difficult because generally we get pulled out against teams from eastern Europe and there’s a lot of travel. And if you draw northern European teams they are in the middle of their season. It’s tough but it’s something we hoped to get in the five-year plan and we’re well ahead of schedule.
“It would be good just to get back in European football again after the difficult period we’ve had. But it makes things more difficult because you’ve got to plan for it. It’s difficult to plan for pre-season without knowing if you’re going to be in Europe. You go in at the very early rounds and it becomes a difficult decision for pre-season.
“Do you give them more time off to get mentally right or less time off to get physically right? It’s something we’ve spoken about at length. I’ve been in European campaigns before where you come back after two or three weeks and it can be difficult two or three months down the line.
“I’m moving further towards looking after the mental side of it more. We’ve still got to get there first. Europe is always hard but if we secure it then we can look at it over the summer.
“Personally I’d love the challenge of pitting myself against other managers and European styles. It’s great for players to be involved in it. Some of the players have had a taste of it and it’s a great experience. It would also help with recruitment in the summer. The lure of European football is big.”