Craig Levein admits that Hearts qualifying for Europe has thrown up logistical difficulties to contend with.
But the director of football is confident that everything possible has been done behind the scenes to ensure the team is perfectly primed for the upcoming season.
Scotland’s ever-diminishing UEFA coefficient has led to the Jam Tarts preparing to start their competitive season in June for the first time in the modern era, with Estonian side FC Infonet due at Tynecastle this Thursday for the first leg of their Europa League first qualifying round tie.
The earlier-than-normal start means Hearts will have had only a fortnight of pre-season before their first competitive match, while it has also meant the guts of their squad has had to be shaped with more than two months of the transfer window to spare. Organising pre-season friendlies has also been a tricky business as Hearts don’t know how many more European games they will have before they kick-off their Premiership campaign at home to Celtic in almost six weeks’ time.
“It’s been quite tricky programming this pre-season, you don’t know how long you’ll be in the competition,” said Hearts Director of Football Levein. “Taking friendly matches is difficult. A lot of people want certainty with these friendly matches, they want them organised well in advance. We have pencilled in some fixtures, it would be good to be getting to the start of the season and we’re still in European competition.”
Levein is confident that the Hearts players, who spent last week training at St Andrews, will have enough fitness to get past the Estonians. “Our break was only four weeks,” he said. “It usually only takes about six weeks to get back down to base for a professional footballer, but they’ve haven’t had six weeks off and a lot of the boys have been doing stuff in between anyway. To get us back to where we need to be isn’t going to take a month. Whether two weeks is enough, I don’t know, but I’ve watched a lot of the training and we seem in good order.”
Although Faycal Rherras, Conor Sammon and Robbie Muirhead have been signed, Levein is adamant that they have not been rushed in specifically for the Infonet match. He confirmed that there will be more new arrivals over the next couple of months. “The European stuff is really important to us but we don’t base all our signings on getting people in early for these particular games,” he said. “We accept that there’s a long league programme and other cup competitions to take part in. We have made some signings and we’ll make some more. There will maybe be a couple of more signings. It depends on a number of things but we aren’t finished.”
One of the pitfalls of entering the first qualifying round is that Hearts have been drawn against an unknown quantity. Since the draw a week ago, management have been busy trying to gain as much information as possible on the Estonians. “We don’t really know an awful lot about Infonet,” said Levein. “They’re on a break just now as well so it’s not that easy to gather information. You’ve got Wyscout which is good because you can watch the matches of most teams in Europe, so that’s a help. Plus there are always contacts that you can phone to get information. There is still an unknown element but that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it? They can’t watch us either because we’ve not started yet, but there will be plenty of information out there for them as well.”
Levein led Hearts into the UEFA Cup group stage 12 years ago, but he knows his club face a more formidable task to perform a similar feat this time round. In 2004, the Jambos only had to negotiate one two-legged tie against Sporting Braga to get there. This time they will have to come through four separate rounds and a total of eight matches if they are to be in with the big boys come September. “I think we had two matches to get in to the league proper, but now there are eight matches, four ties,” he said. “It will be tough but we will worry about getting to the league stages later. I don’t even want to go there [in terms of talking about it] just now.”
Levein was speaking at Tynecastle after unveiling the 1914 Memorial Trust Bronze, a stunning statue which commemorates the Hearts players who volunteered to serve in the First World War.
“The longer you’re here, the more immersed you become in what the club’s all about,” said Levein. “Away back to when I first joined, we would go down to Haymarket every year on Remembrance Day to remember the guys who lost their lives in the war. It’s a real delight to be here to see this being unveiled. You can see the magnitude of it. Everybody who comes to the stadium will be more than impressed by the job that’s been done.”