LIVERPOOL. Mere mention of the name pricks the senses. Sepia-tinted memories of legendary Scots instantly spring to mind: Bill Shankly, Ian St John, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish. The club carries an aura wherever it goes in the world. In less than two weeks’ time, their presence will grace Edinburgh as a result of yesterday’s Europa League play-off draw.
For the second time inside a year, Hearts face a battle of Britain with one of England’s Premier League powerhouses. Whilst Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez may not harbour quite the same immortality as some of their Anfield predecessors, they remain opponents of immense quality. Tottenham issued a tough lesson to Hearts last year and Liverpool will be no easier a task.
At the Edinburgh club’s training base on the city’s outskirts yesterday, the draw was greeted warmly. Manager John McGlynn and his backroom staff emerged from the club office shortly after 12.30pm sporting broad smiles. And why shouldn’t they? McGlynn, in particular, has worked tirelessly for years to earn the right to manage on this kind of stage. He isn’t about to be consumed by an inferiority complex.
“It’s an exciting prospect facing Liverpool. Could I have imagined six months ago when I was at Raith Rovers I’d be playing against Liverpool? What a great opportunity for everyone,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young players in the team at the minute and the prospect for them to play home and away against Liverpool is fantastic. I’m a great believer that any match is eleven versus eleven.
“Obviously their budget is much more than ours. Stevie Gerrard will be getting as much as my entire budget. He’ll be earning more than we can afford to pay our entire team so from that point of view you’re up against it. But it’s great, there will be a massive crowd at Tynecastle. I’m glad the game will be at Tynecastle because when I was at Hearts a few years ago European matches were at Murrayfield. While they were special nights, it wasn’t quite the same as playing at Tynecastle.”
Hearts’ 5-0 loss to Tottenham at Tynecastle at the same stage of the tournament last year put the chasm between England’s top flight and Scotland’s into perspective. “Hopefully we can learn from the Spurs experience last season because it’s a similar type of tie. Unfortunately for Hearts that died kind of quickly,” said McGlynn. “There was a great build-up to that match and a great atmosphere but the way Tottenham went about their business that night, the game was finished very quickly before Hearts restored pride with a draw at White Hart Lane.
“I would hope we’ve learned from that. We’ve lost some players over the summer so it’s a different type of team. We’re introducing younger players into the team but I hope we’ve learned. “It’s also good that we don’t have to jump on flights and travel all over Europe to try and watch our opponents as it’s easy to go and watch them and try and pick things up and learn as much as we can about them. We’ll leave no stone unturned.”
Realistically, Hearts’ chances of progress to the Europa League’s group stage appear slim. McGlynn is a realist and isn’t frightened to admit as much. However, he has proven more than once in his life already that he likes a challenge. “I would imagine the bookies will kind of favour Liverpool but every dog has its day. I said to Edgaras (Jankauskas, his assistant) that it isn’t that long ago Kaunas played Liverpool and they weren’t embarrassed so I’d hope we could do enough in the first leg to keep it alive which didn’t happen against Spurs.
“We’ll try and make sure the tie is alive. It would be similar to Celtic coming to Tynecastle – that will probably be our best chance to do it. We wouldn’t want to be gung-ho and exposed but, like anyone in our situation, if you’re going to try and get through you’d probably need to take a lead to Anfield. I actually played at Anfield when I was a teenager at Bolton. Frank McGarvey was playing in their reserve team at the time. I think we lost narrowly. It was 32 years ago.”
Such is the magnitude of drawing Liverpool in Europe that even tomorrow’s Edinburgh derby – the first since Hearts’ historic victory over Hibs in the Scottish Cup final – has almost been shunted aside. “All week we’ve been focusing on Hibs and we can’t take our focus off Hibs. But this has thrown a cat amongst the pigeons,” admitted McGlynn. “It’s a glamour tie but Sunday will be the greatest moment for me and some of the younger players.
“Then Liverpool come to Tynecastle on August 23. It’s a great learning curve. I can remember Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen going down to play the likes of Liverpool and more recently Rangers v Leeds United and Celtic v Leeds United in front of a huge crowd. We’ve got to do our best for Heart of Midlothian Football Club and Scotland’s coefficient.
“It’s great to be here at a time like this. I couldn’t wait to get here and now I’m here things just seem to get better and better. A victory on Sunday would take that on another step and give us a cushion and allow us to look forward to the Liverpool game. But we can’t forget there are important games against Hibs and Inverness before that game.”
For the Hearts players, there is another chance to rub shoulders with some of England’s finest. Provided they are tall enough. “I got Tom Huddlestone’s jersey last year,” said Scott Robinson, who played in the 0-0 second leg draw with Tottenham at White Hart Lane. “It’s about three times the size of me.”
This year, the diminutive midfielder will be in direct opposition to one of his footballing idols. “I was a massive fan of Gerrard growing up, and I still am. He’s one you have to look up, he’s an imposing figure on the pitch. He’s great on the ball, he gets forward and scores goals, he is a typical midfielder. You look at him in the Champions League final and in the FA Cup final when he scored the double against West Ham. He’s there when you need him.
“It doesn’t bother me the reputations of players. I think you just have to get in their face. You have to respect them but you can’t give them too much respect. They’re just humans at the end of the day. If you get in their face you can make them make a mistake, that’s how I look at it.
“It’s all about starting well and if we can do that and still be in the tie for Anfield, I’ll be delighted. If you can keep them to a goalless draw at home, anything can happen. It’s a dream come true for me, you dream of ties like this. You just have to relish it, impress on and the night and do all you can.”