HEARTS can prepare for a plum tie in Nyon tomorrow when they enter the UEFA glass bowl. The unpredictability of European draws means every Jambo will be a mixture of excitement and nerves until the Europa League play-off permutations are revealed. Some of Europe’s most illustrious clubs lie in wait.
Inter Milan, Lazio, Marseille, Liverpool, Athletic Bilbao, Sporting Lisbon, Bordeaux, PSV Eindhoven and Stuttgart are just some of them. If Hearts thought last year’s Battle of Britain with Tottenham Hotspur was prestigious, this year may well eclipse that. As an unseeded club in the draw, they will meet a seeded team with a far higher co-efficient rating and will very much be regarded as underdogs.
Hearts’ co-efficient is 7.228. Prior to this evening’s second leg ties in the Europa League third qualifying round – which will determine the final seeds for tomorrow’s draw – the lowest ranked club due to be seeded is Viktoria Plzen of Czech Republic. Their co-efficient is 14.070, more than double that of the Tynecastle outfit. Inter’s is highest at 104.996, so the task is clearly a daunting one based on UEFA’s ranking procedure.
However, that will not stifle the excitement building around Gorgie. As if this weekend’s Edinburgh derby at Easter Road and the chance to gloat over May’s Scottish Cup final thrashing of Hibs wasn’t enough, supporters can also look forward to a European powerhouse visiting Tynecastle before the month is out.
Time to dig out passports and blow up beach balls for another continental adventure.
The journey could lead to one of several familiar destinations. Inter (season 1961/62), Stuttgart (2000/01), Bordeaux (season 2003/04) and Sparta Prague (season 2006/07) are all opponents from previous European campaigns. The latter three are still ingrained in recent memory having faced Hearts since the turn of the century. They would all be considered tough ties, although Sparta – who hold a 2-0 advantage over Austria’s Admira Wacker ahead of tonight’s return leg in Prague – would certainly offer the most realistic chance of progress out of the four.
Glamour could come from another encounter with an English Premier League club. Provided Liverpool dispense with the Belorussians of FC Gomel tonight at Anfield, they will join Newcastle United amongst the play-off seeds. The prospect of either city being invaded by Hearts and their mass of supporters would make last year’s pilgrimage to Tottenham seem like a nursery school outing. If progress to the lucrative Europa League group phase is the priority, then Hearts must hope to draw one of the lower ranked seeded teams. Minimal travelling would also help their cause. Clubs like Rosenborg, Young Boys Berne and Racing Genk would therefore be preferred to a gruelling trip away to eastern Europe. But those three must first negotiate some awkward looking second legs this evening to secure their places. Rosenborg drew 1-1 with Servette in Switzerland in their first leg, whilst Young Boys lost 1-0 in Sweden to Kalmar and Genk hold a 2-1 lead travelling to Kazakhstani club Aktobe.
That clubs regarded as above average in the wider context of European football are struggling to get to the play-off round for the groups highlights the difficulties of this competition.
Whilst the Champions League remains UEFA’s blue riband tournament, the Europa League is hardly a poor relation given the quality of teams involved.
Hearts, of course, bypassed the hazardous earlier qualifying rounds after winning the aforementioned Scottish Cup. Whilst St Johnstone and Dundee United have had the perils of European preliminary rounds hammered home to them, John McGlynn and his players have been able to watch from afar. Starting in Europe in late August is yet another reward for that glorious afternoon at Hampden Park in May.
McGlynn finds himself the beneficiary of last season’s work in many ways and this is merely one of them.
He has swapped First Division Raith Rovers for a chance to manage in the SPL with Hearts and take part in a European campaign into the bargain. It’s little wonder he jumped at the job when offered it.
“It’s a big attraction because it’s always great to be involved in European football,” he said, mindful of games he watched as assistant to previous Hearts managers Craig Levein and Valdas Ivanauskas. “There are a number of big clubs that we could get. It’s something to really look forward to, especially for me just coming to Hearts. I was involved in European campaigns during Craig’s reign, going to Braga, Bordeaux, Feyenoord, then later on in Bosnia and Athens and places like that.
“These were great nights. Some we won and some we lost but they were great experiences and great games for the fans. It will be great from my own point of view to be the manager of a team that might end up lining up against a Liverpool or a Newcastle or a club like that. It would be a another chapter in my development so I’m looking forward to the draw.”
Another Battle of Britain isn’t something which would faze McGlynn. “It created a big interest last season when Hearts played Tottenham. Unfortunately for everyone at Hearts, the game was finished very quickly and no-one will forget the sight of Tottenham. They then got a 0-0 down in London and brought a bit of pride back.
“I wouldn’t like to go too far away, like into Russia or somewhere like that. So that’s probably where we’ll end up! France or Holland – anywhere round about that area – would be a nice journey and good for the fans.
“I’m very much the type of person who believes you deal with the cards you’re dealt. We’ll get on with it whatever the draw throws up. We’re very grateful to be in this situation by winning the Scottish Cup and we will look to do as well as we possibly can. If our younger players pick up experience, fantastic.”