Hearts have little time to waste in building for Europe
Noisy trucks and JCBs outside Riccarton may be drowned out by activity upstairs in the Hearts football department over the coming weeks.
Constructing Scotland’s national performance centre has turned the surroundings of Hearts’ training ground into a muddy building site. Inside, work is accelerating to reinforce the first-team squad.
Keyboards will be bashed, meetings thrashed, DVDs scoured, bodies rushed in and out and contracts printed. The Europa League qualifiers start on June 30, just more than two months away. There are five league games of the current campaign left but strengthening the playing pool is vital ahead of next season. Ongoing work over the last few months will intensify, because it has to.
Head coach Robbie Neilson is at the forefront of the action, alongside director of football Craig Levein and chief scout John Murray. Securing European football as a newly-promoted club in the Ladbrokes Premiership is a remarkable feat, however none of the above are known for resting on laurels. They want a striker, plus additional new recruits, signed before that European tie.
The scouting began months ago, so now it is about pressing ahead, completing negotiations and signing deals to ensure Hearts are properly prepared for their earliest ever start to a season. “I think the squad needs a little bit of manoeuvring,” said Neilson. “Yes, we have a decent squad, but every year you look at it and see where you need to improve.
“There are areas where I think it’s important we strengthen. We’re already in the process of doing that. Securing that European place means we can go to players and say: ‘Look, you’ve got an opportunity to come here and play European football’. That’s a big draw for people.
“In our first season, when we had just been relegated to the Championship, it was very difficult to get good quality players to come to Hearts. For a start, it’s Scotland. Then, you’re coming to the second tier in Scotland. The club had just come out of administration and players coming here had no idea what was going to happen. That was difficult.
“This season, it was a bit better because we were in the top flight, although we were still a newly-promoted team. A lot of people don’t know the size of the club and the history of the club so they just look at that. I think, now that we’ve secured European football through a good league position, Hearts will be a lot more attractive to players. That should make it a little bit easier to get good, quality guys in.”
There will also be departures as Hearts continue to evolve in their post-administration rebuilding phase. It is easy to overlook the fact they are merely two years into a five-year restructuring plan unveiled by owner Ann Budge when she took control. The progress has been rapid, breathtaking at times, although feet remain firmly on solid ground inside the Edinburgh club. Finishing third is now a benchmark for the future.
“We’re well ahead of schedule,” continued Neilson. “As with everything, when you progress well, then expectations levels rise too. The expectation levels at Hearts now are that we should be doing the same next season. We’ll be trying to achieve that, if not better.
“At the start of the season when we came up, you never know where you’re going to be in relation to other teams in the league. We estimated that trying to get into the top six would be where we were. I think the players and the whole club have just exceeded the expectations we set ourselves.
“The players have shown they can handle this league. The fans have shown they can support us through some difficult times. Last season we never really had any difficult periods. We had one [league] loss and we didn’t even lose two games on the bounce. This year, we lost three games in a row and went five games without a win.
“The supporters have shown us they can stick together, keep pushing us and continue turning up in their numbers. That proves the club is all together. We’re going in the right direction. We’ve taken great strides and we want to take more strides next year.”
An example of the drive coursing through Neilson and others at Hearts came in Inverness last Tuesday night. Drawing 0-0 in the Highland Capital confirmed European football will return to Tynecastle this summer after a four-year absence. Yet Neilson climbed the stairs from trackside to media room after the match bearing a forlorn look.
“The players were disappointed, I was disappointed and I’m sure the fans were as well. We want to be going to Inverness and picking up three points,” he said. “I think, given where we are in the league, we should be doing that. If we want to mount more of a challenge next year then we can’t accept a 0-0 up there. We need to go to these places, perform and get a result.”
He is, nonetheless, able to see the bigger picture. Hearts’ reappearance on the Continent means supporters can relive those balmy summer evenings once again: Tynecastle, floodlights, a full stadium and an electric atmosphere to intimidate any foreign opponent.
Neilson spent ten years of his playing career in Gorgie, featuring in memorable European occasions in both the UEFA Cup and Champions League. He faced household names like Stuttgart, Bordeaux, Braga, Feyenoord, Schalke, AEK Athens and Sparta Prague. There was also that winning goal in Basel 12 years ago. His opinion that Tynecastle is a perfect arena for European football is hard to argue with.
“There’s nothing better, honestly. You walk out at Tynecastle under the floodlights in front of 17,000 fans for a European tie, there’s nowhere better. I was lucky enough to play in a quite a few European games for Hearts there. Then we went to Murrayfield and it was so different, like night and day. The atmosphere created at Tynecastle was second to none.”
No matter how much noise stems from the Riccarton offices or outside on the building site, the decibel level won’t match the tumultuous din down the road on McLeod Street in a few weeks’ time.