Andy Halliday exclusive: Five different positions and relishing more as historic Hearts season begins
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Season tickets are sold out ahead of competitive action resuming this Saturday. Six new signings are in situ with more to follow as Hearts embark upon a Premiership campaign, two national cup competitions and a European adventure. Jambos quite simply haven’t had it this good in years.
McKinlay’s comment – published on the club website as new contracts were announced for manager Robbie Neilson and coaching staff – might be perceived in some dressing rooms as cranking up the pressure. Not at Riccarton, where players seem to relish the high stakes.
Ross County visit Tynecastle Park this weekend in the opening league fixture and Hearts’ first-team squad are fully aware that expectation should always be part of their remit. “I think, if you aren’t under pressure going into a new season, then you don’t have many exciting games and not a lot to play for,” says midfielder Andy Halliday.
“With success comes more pressure. Teams will expect us to improve, as will fans, especially when you see how much we have added to the squad.
“We are in Europe because we want to make a stamp on the competition. We are guaranteed to be in there until Christmas and we hope it’s in the Europa League. No matter who we play, we want to do well and show that we are a good football side.
“I think pressure is part of the job. I believe the boys we have can deal with that. The characters in the dressing room are excellent and we have only added to that during the summer. The boys who came in certainly fit the mould we are looking for.”
Anticipation is building, emphasised by more than 15,500 season tickets bought by Hearts supporters. Rapid progress last season saw the club finish third in the Premiership as a newly-promoted team. They also reached the Scottish Cup final and secured a spot in next month’s Europa League play-off round.
“Our home form was a big reason for our success last season, so one of the best bits of news all summer was selling out the season tickets,” continues Halliday. “We know it’s going to be packed every game at Tynecastle and other teams know they will not only face a tough team but a rapturous home crowd as well.
“That's a huge bonus for us. I’d imagine the fans have missed European football and we have guaranteed them a few big nights at Tynecastle. Not only have we a big game on Saturday, there is that European draw a few days later for us all to look forward to.”
At 30, Halliday has endured enough pre-season programmes to know the drill. There is no shortcut round the exhausting running, gymwork and exercising. “You never look forward to pre-season. I’ve done plenty of them now and it’s tough, but it’s important.
“You need a month or so for new signings to get used to the boys and the way we play. We haven’t had many injuries but, as a player, you are just delighted pre-season is over and you can get back to competitive football.
“Kilmarnock and Aberdeen did well and finished third in the past but then lost four or five of their best players. We’ve only lost Soapy [John Souttar, to Rangers] but we knew about that in January. There are a lot of key players at good ages signed on long-term contracts.
“We had one of the smallest squads last season and we’ve added strength in depth for the European campaign. I think the new boys look really good.”
None of them can touch Halliday for versatility, however. It’s part of what makes him integral to the manager's plans. “I think I played every position last year except striker,” smiles the player.
“I managed to play a couple of games at right-back, winger, No.10, centre-mid, wing-back – but I love that. It’s something I’ve always been willing to do, you won’t get any complaints from me.”
Certainly not if he finds himself in some hostile eastern European arena in the weeks ahead, tasked with helping Hearts earn vital group points. Tuesday’s Europa League play-off draw carries 14 possible opponents for the club as they aim for the group phase. A safety parachute into the Europa Conference League is given to losers at that stage.
Halliday faced one of those 14 teams, Shkupi of North Macedonia, in the Europa League qualifying rounds with Rangers four years ago. He would rather not return to Skopje, although some of the alternatives perhaps seem even more daunting.
“Me and the boys have all been speculating on who we could get,” admits Halliday. “You saw all the names of our potential European opponents. I’ve managed to play quite a few European ties now and had a few experiences so I was looking at who we might face.
“I don’t want Shkupi because I’ve played there. I would obviously like to play a team I haven’t played before in a different country. You look at some of the clubs in there: Fenerbahce is known for a great atmosphere, as is Olympiakos, Partizan Belgrade is another really famous one.
“It will be great experience for the boys who have and haven’t played in Europe, even the international players. It’s really exciting times for this club.”