John Robertson was the last man to manage a Hearts team in the group stages of Europe’s secondary club competition.
Twelve years on, he senses that Robbie Neilson, who scored the most famous goal of that 2004 UEFA Cup campaign, is hellbent on ensuring the Tynecastle side are back on the big stage when the real business of the Europa League starts in the autumn.
Robertson replaced current director of football Craig Levein as Hearts manager midway through the 2004 UEFA Cup group stages and took charge of matches away to Basel and at home to Ferencvaros. Neilson, then a 24-year-old right-back, scored a memorable late winner in Switzerland, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to take Hearts beyond Christmas and into the knockout stages.
Levein was unwilling to look too far ahead when asked about his team’s Europa League prospects in the upcoming campaign. But Robertson, who is head of coach education at Hearts as well as a club ambassador, has a good insight into the way the club go about their business and is in no doubt about their intentions.
“I’m certain that the group stages is Robbie’s aim,” said the club’s record goalscorer. “I’ve seen his planning for pre-season and it’s in line with trying to qualify for the group stages. There’s no doubt about that. He’s got friendlies lined up that the under 20s can take if the first team are still in Europe. They have three-month cycles where they put the plans up for the players so they know what they are doing and there’s no question that Robbie wants to qualify for the group stages. That’s the plan.
“They’ve recruited well so far and I’m sure they’ll continue to recruit well. Everyone is fit and they will give themselves the best chance possible to qualify for the group stages. The Hearts players have battled for 38 games to get to this position and they will not want to give it up easily. They will want to enhance the profile of the club European-wise as they have done domestically for the past two seasons.”
Because of their nation’s plummeting UEFA co-efficient, Hearts and Aberdeen will have to come through four ties – eight matches – just to make the group stage. For the Tynecastle side, the adventure begins at home to Estonian outfit FC Infonet this Thursday. Robertson dismisses any notion that Scottish clubs are better off being eliminated early in order to focus fully on their league campaign.
“I think it’s annoying for Robbie and the likes of Derek McInnes [Aberdeen] and Tommy Wright [St Johnstone] when people say going out of Europe is a blessing in disguise because it won’t then affect their league form,” he said. “I know these guys really well and they are all the same – they don’t want to go out the competition. They want to make at least the group stages to give their fans a wonderful European experience and also to give the players the reward they deserve for a season of working to get into Europe in the first place. It was the aim of St Johnstone in previous seasons and it will be the aim of Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs this season.”
Robertson has plenty European memories from his time as both a player and manager at Hearts. Even though he was only in charge of the Jambos for seven months, he got to taste some high-profile matches. “I arrived for the second group game against Schalke and I didn’t pick the team but the experience was fabulous,” he said. “We then had a magnificent win in Basel and then we played Ferencvaros. The Basel game was the highlight. We were the first British club to win in Basel back then. It was a fantastic victory and it was the current manager who got the winner. Hearts want to try and recreate these nights when they have got great results in Braga and Bordeaux.
“In recent times we have had Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool here where we have had packed houses at Tynecastle. These are the games that you want and you have to earn the right to get to the group stages. The European trips are fabulous for the fans and the supporters have wonderful memories of them. It is such a hard task to get to the group stages now and it is impossible at times but that has to be the aim. The aim of this club should always be to get as far as it can in Europe. That starts for Hearts with FC Infonet and we will have to try and get past them and then take our chances in the next round. That’s what Robbie wants to do and that is what the players want to do.”
Robertson recalls some glory nights from his playing days at Tynecastle. He is in no doubt about the pinnacle. “That was against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup [in 1989],” he said. “I was on the bench when Iain Ferguson scored the winner in the first leg at Tynecastle. Bayern were giants of European football and we were the width of the post away from knocking them out over there. John Colquhoun hit the post twice and I clipped the post near the end and a goal would have put us through to face Maradona’s Napoli in the quarter-final. That was a wonderful night at Tynecastle.
“We have had some crackers – we beat Dnipro 3-1, we beat Atletico Madrid, Dukla Prague and had a great game against Red Star Belgrade. There have been lots of fantastic European games. It is great that those nights are returning to Tynecastle.
“Murrayfield was fantastic as it allowed 33,000 Hearts fans to see the game but there is nothing like a packed Tynecastle. If they can get to the Europa League group stages, It would be a wonderful memory and experience for the players.”
Hearts were able to field two entirely different teams in their friendlies against TNS and Aberdeen last week, while they have Perry Kitchen and Liam Smith to come back into the mix after international duty and injury respectively, as well as the prospect of new signings. Robertson believes they have enough squad depth to deal with the demands of mixing European and domestic football, although he expects further recruitment if they can make the group stage.
“For the early part of the campaign, yes, I think they have the squad to cope,” said the 51-year-old. “He has a lot of good senior players and decent youngsters that can come in. I would think that should Hearts get to the group stages Robbie will strengthen again. If you are playing Thursday-Sunday right through to October, November time, they will have to mix it up and add one or two more. They may even do that before the season starts.”