BOOING and jeering greeted the announcement of Conor Sammon as the sponsors’ man of the match at Tynecastle on Thursday. In that moment, he became a scapegoat for Hearts’ shock Europa League defeat to the tiny Maltese club Birkirkara.
The striker clearly faces a challenge trying to win over supporters just a month after signing a three-year deal. Perhaps borne out of frustration, he was singled out at the end of a humiliating night. His new team-mates accept collective responsibility for the 2-1 defeat which ends their European adventure after just two qualifying rounds. The Irishman was oblivious to the discontent pouring down from the stands in his direction, but he insists there is no harder critic than himself.
“I wasn’t aware of that, I didn’t hear any of it,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me at all, man of the match or whatever. I’m fully aware if I’ve had a good game or if there are aspects I can improve on.
“Personally, I’m my own worst critic. So I don’t really take much notice from anything that goes on outside.” Sammon, 29, is experienced enough in football to realise the anger within the Hearts support following an unexpected European exit. A 0-0 first-leg draw in Malta put the Edinburgh club in a favourable position to progress to the third qualifying round, but Birkirkara executed a classic counter-attacking gameplan in Edinburgh.
“I think the criticism is merited,” admitted Sammon. “It’s a negative result for us, first of all. And, for Scottish football, we want to be progressing as far as we can in the European competitions, going through the rounds and having success.
“Speak to the guys at Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs, they’ll tell you the same. So yeah, we understand the criticism that is going to come our way. We, as players, are our own worst critics. We know when we haven’t played well, know when we’ve had an off night, when we’ve made mistakes.
“It’s up to us, as players, to take that criticism on the chin and channel it the right way, to keep working hard and stick together as a group. I’m only new to the group, having just signed quite recently, but I know the characters we have in that dressing-room. We’ll undoubtedly channel this in the right way and move on from it. We will grow from this experience.”
Regaining fans’ confidence ahead of the new league season is an important factor in moving forward. “It’s up to us to turn them around. Absolutely,” continued Sammon. “The support here is incredible. At the start of the game on Thursday, there was an amazing atmosphere. As a player, going out to play in front of that, it’s just so powerful.
“I think the first goal would have made a difference and set the place really going. But all credit to Birkirkara, they came with a gameplan and got the job done. We will look to kick on from here, try to get some positives from it and learn from the negative experience.”
Such a defeat always prompts analysts of Scottish football to seek reasons for European failure. That is a separate – not to mention lengthy – article in itself. Hearts are still coming to terms with the lesson dished out by Birkirkara but will have noted the Maltese club’s measured approach as they cleverly picked off their hosts.
“I think maybe we do need to be more streetwise. Possibly,” said Sammon. “That probably comes with experience in those type of games. I haven’t played many games in European competition and it is a learning curve, no matter what age you are.
“We do have a young group of players but, going into the game, we had every confidence in our team to be able to play against a side set up in that way. We knew we had to be patient and switched on from set-pieces. That is what cost us, unfortunately, and that is the frustrating thing.
“We were definitely all devastated by the loss. We just kind of let ourselves down, I think, by conceding. We all know how crucial away goals are in European competition and that really cost us.
“We had to be patient in the first half, we came close on a number of occasions – but they had a couple of chances too. We’re just really disappointed with how the game ended up. Obviously, we’re out of European competition, it’s disappointing. We have to try to take something from it moving forward, use this negative result to push on. There is a league campaign coming up and we have to look to keep improving, every day and with every game we play.”
Being asked to play important European ties with only two weeks’ preparation is certainly a factor hindering Scottish teams, not only Hearts. Celtic’s loss in Gibraltar and Aberdeen’s reverse in Luxembourg could also have been costly. Sammon acknowledged he alone doesn’t have the answers to the perennial question of what our clubs must do to fare better abroad.
“I’m not sure. These games are never easy for a player,” he stated. “You always seem to play against teams who, on paper, you are expected to turn over quite easily. That’s not the way we look at it within the dressing-room.
“We know they can be difficult games, because you are usually playing against teams who are out to frustrate you, put a lot of men behind the ball and make life difficult. That is a real challenge in itself.
“We were fully aware of what we were up against on Thursday, how they were going to play. We just let ourselves down by conceding those two goals, which gave us a mountain to climb.
“In the last twenty minutes, we get that goal but we’re clinging on, looking for another really quickly. It didn’t quite happen and the game sort of fizzled out a little bit, a lot of sort of silly fouls and things like that.”