HEARTS’ European prospects may depend heavily on the outcome of Saturday’s trip to Tayside. Defeat to fourth-placed Dundee United would effectively leave them rivalling St Johnstone for fifth, which carries a July 19 start in the Europa League’s second qualifying round. That’s two and a half weeks before the new SPL season begins.
Finishing fourth would mean an August 2 start in the Europa League’s third qualifying round and a far easier schedule with which to begin the new campaign. So gaining a result at Tannadice to stay in touch with United, currently four points ahead of their Edinburgh rivals, is paramount. Being left seven points behind with only three league games remaining would virtually end all hopes of achieving fourth, and finishing sixth would not be enough to ensure European football.
Of course, Hearts could render all of the above academic by winning the Scottish Cup to enter the Europa League play-offs on August 23. Whilst that would certainly be their preferred scenario – not least because it would involve beating Hibs in the final – it would be a dangerous one to presume.
European places are at a premium for top-six clubs following Rangers’ descent into administration and Hearts are eager to achieve one as early as possible.
The unique, one-off nature of a cup final with Hibs makes it wholly unpredictable. Relying on winning it to provide entry into continental competition would be inadvisable.
“Everything is really close. We’ve got four big games coming up,” explained Gary Locke, the Hearts first-team coach. “Dundee United have had a fantastic season and Peter Houston, Heggy [Paul Hegarty] and Gary Kirk have done a great job there.
“They’ve brought through some really talented kids and they’re having a good campaign, but we’ve got to go up there and be well organised and hopefully try to get three points.
“We haven’t got a good record against them and it’s important we go there and try to put on a good performance for our supporters who travel and also to try and get three points because it’s a huge game for us.
“If we want to try and finish above Dundee United and St Johnstone, these are games we’ve got to win.”
Hearts’ ultimate aim would be to progress to the Europa League group phase, a platform they reached once before in 2004.
For both finance and prestige it would be a monumental success to do so again, so the fewer qualifying rounds they need to negotiate in order to get there, the better their chances will be.
Recent years have seen both Tottenham Hotspur and Dinamo Zagreb prevent Hearts getting into the groups after the Edinburgh club finished third in the SPL. But supporters have derived immense enjoyment from welcoming different teams to Edinburgh, not to mention creating a few hazy memories on trips abroad. They are hoping for more of the same next season.
Hearts began their post-split league fixtures with a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Rangers at Tynecastle last Saturday. The team failed to reach the heights scaled the previous weekend, when they beat Celtic 2-1 at Hampden Park to complete an all-Edinburgh line-up for the Scottish Cup final. However, they remain in upbeat mood with plenty still to play for in both league and cup.
“We’re not too disappointed,” Locke told the club website.
“As Paulo touched on, we weren’t world beaters last week [after beating Celtic] and we’re not a bad team this week. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got another big game on Saturday and we’ve got to try and get back to winning ways again.”
Locke felt the Rangers defeat did not entirely reflect the balance of play during the match, and therefore gave an unfair impression of how Hearts performed.
The visitors were 2-0 ahead at half-time and looked in command until Craig Beattie’s penalty hit the crossbar 16 minutes from the end. The third goal merely compounded the hosts’ misery two minutes from full-time.
“I didn’t feel there was three goals in it,” continued Locke. “In the first-half I didn’t think we played to our capabilities but I also didn’t think we played too badly either.
“We lost a couple of poor goals. It was a great free-kick from Aluko, to be fair, but the second goal was a poor goal to lose. I felt in the second-half, after Paulo changed one or two things at half-time, we gave a better account of ourselves. I think the biggest turning point in the game was the penalty.
“At that time, I felt we were well in control of the game. If that goes in, it’s a different game for us.”
Asked if things were perhaps a little flat for Hearts after defeating Celtic at Hampden, Locke replied: “Possibly, but we can’t use that as an excuse.
“On the day, Rangers were clinical in front of goal and, no matter what everybody says about them, they’re still a great team with great coaching staff. It was a difficult 90 minutes for us but we aim to bounce back at the weekend.”
The need for a result at Tannadice is clear. Hearts are the only team in Scotland with European avenues open to them via the league and cup, and they will be out to make the most of both.