Exclusive: Stephen Kingsely reveals 'wild' expectations in Greece as Hearts look to vent their anger at PAOK
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Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstadinoupolitón is a club established by Greek refugees who fled to Thessaloniki from Constantinople in the wake of the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War. It is a club built and followed to this day by people who believe passionately in fighting for everything. Tonight, Hearts must muster the same fire and desire to keep their European flame burning on the banks of the Thermaic Gulf.
The Edinburgh club need one of the most remarkable results in their history to eliminate PAOK Salonika in the intimidating Toumba Stadium and reach the Europa Conference League group stage. Trailing 2-1 from last week’s play-off first leg at Tynecastle Park, they face an onerous task. Visiting players should be able to use some inward anger and fight to their advantage after being infuriated by their own display on Sunday at Dundee.
PAOK’s ground is the centrepiece of Thessalonika’s humble Toumba district and is known across Europe for its hostility. Graffiti adorns outer walls and concrete terracings, which hold thousands of vociferous Greeks baying for blood. Hearts know they are very much walking into a lion’s den and must bare their own teeth to survive in temperatures touching 30 degrees by kick-off. PAOK like to hustle and unnerve opponents, so those in maroon have little choice than to fight fire with fire. Events at Dundee could perversely help generate a badly-needed reaction.
“If you learn from it, yeah. As players and as a club, we need to draw a line in the sand now,” said defender Stephen Kingsley in an exclusive Evening News interview. “We have made progress in the first few games, we have shown that against top teams. We didn’t show it at Dens Park so let that be a marker. We never want to go back to that again. We gave away far too many silly goals last season and we had been more solid at the start of this season. That’s why it’s so frustrating.
“We don’t accept that first-half performance as players and the fans shouldn’t accept it. However, the least you should walk away with is a 0-0 and don’t lose the game. We came away with a 1-0 defeat. We tried to put a few things right in the second half but the goal was a gut-punch. We need to kick on over here now.
“This is a completely different game, particularly when you add the heat in. We know what their fans will be like. They are pretty hostile and make it very hard. We are going to give it our best shot. We showed last Thursday that we have more than enough to cause them problems. It’s a huge game for us. We want to pick the good points and get that feel-good factor back again.”
For all Kingsley’s experiences in England and at international level, Toumba will be rather unique. Thessaloniki is a traditional Greek city inhabited by football-crazy people. As the country’s second-largest settlement area, they are fighting for supremacy against bigger clubs from the capital, Athens.
“I haven’t played in a European fixture where the fans are as wild as what I’ve heard these ones will be. The heat plays a factor in that as well,” admitted Kingsley. “It’s the full atmosphere but it’s one we are looking forward to. It’s going to be an occasion where we can go and put on a performance and know we can get something from the game. We need to believe that, no matter the result on Sunday. We need to believe we can come here and win the game after the encouraging performance we had last Thursday.
“We are 2-1 down in this tie so we don’t have the possibility of not being at it for the first 45 minutes. We need a 90-minute performance. We will make sure we give ourselves the best chance to do it and we believe that we can.”
Victory would achieve a place in the coveted Conference League group stages. It would also etch a momentous date in Hearts’ history books given the magnitude of the task ahead. There is no room for manoeuvre despite Toumba’s expansive playing surface and the visitors know their gameplan and performance must be executed to perfection. They endured a sub-standard first-half performance in the first leg of the previous round away to Rosenborg and found themselves 2-0 behind at the interval. There was time to recover in that tie, but no such luxury this time.
There should still be residual anger within the Hearts squad following the Dundee match. “It’s probably what you would imagine was said afterwards,” Kingsley hinted. “The first half was absolutely miles away from anything we have worked on or shown in the early parts of the season. You could see the team we wanted to be, although it’s not been perfect. Sunday was miles off that. We were lucky to be 0-0 and that’s what we said at half-time. We needed to take the game to Dundee. We talked a good game beforehand but, for whatever reason, it was absolutely nowhere near good enough in that first half.
“We began to turn the game around in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the second half without creating too many glaringly-obvious chances. Then the goal is just schoolboy stuff, really. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again. That’s the most important thing now, that we learn from this.”