Hearts get an education in Europe with changes in the pipeline

Robbie Neilson stressed young Hearts players have had a priceless education this season as he challenged his squad to secure a return to European football next season. A 3-1 defeat by Istanbul Basaksehir closed the Europa Conference League group phase, with the Turks winning Group A and Hearts finishing third.
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Connor Smith, Euan Henderson and Lewis Neilson all played from the start in the Fatih Terim Stadium and teenager Finlay Pollock came on as a late substitute. Pollock helped create Nathaniel Atkinson's stoppage-time consolation goal with determined work before a cutback into the penalty area. Neilson, the Hearts manager, admitted he will make changes for Sunday's Premiership match with Motherwell. He was pleased with how his young players coped against the group's top seeds.

“They all played well and I was delighted but I thought they would, there was no pressure on them tonight,” he said. “They just came here to try and implement our gameplan and do what they could do. Neilson, Smith, Henderson and Finlay Pollock coming on was great to see and this will be a great education for them. Hopefully we can take that forward and it helps them develop.

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“I think everyone came through tonight fine. We may get one or two back for the weekend. Potentially Kye Rowles will be around about it, Craig Halkett maybe, Peter Haring potentially. No matter who is available I think all the guys from tonight should be ready for it. We will make changes for the weekend.

“We were playing against a very good team tonight who are deservedly at the top of this group and who I expect to go very far in this tournament. I thought we actually defended well, but we lost three bad goals, especially the first one coming directly from a corner after four minutes. We managed to solidify ourselves and get ourselves back into the game but then we lost another bad goal and at this level you cannot do that. We understand that. We have said all along that this is a key learning curve for us. The key is we learn from these mistakes and try and use what we learn to try and get back here once again.

“That’s the first thing we spoke about in the dressing room after the game. Can we get group stage football next year and use everything we have learned from this Conference League campaign? It has been massive for the club and massive for the fans as well. They have had four great away trips to enjoy. We have had thousands of fans travel Europe and have a fantastic time. It’s our job now to get back into European football and hopefully improve on our results next season.”

Hearts are determined to take as many positives as possible. “We have managed to get group stage football for the first time in 16 years,” stated Neilson. “We have competed, we have picked up six points which is fantastic for us. We have gone away to Fiorentina and Istanbul and scored goals. Yes, there’s a lot of learning within that. You can’t switch off at any second at this level. For us it’s about trying to get back here and improve on our performances, results and points tally.”